Talks between Georgia and breakaway regions under threat amid Ukraine war
Officials in Moscow and their allies in Abkhazia and South Ossetia all canceled meetings with international diplomats brokering the discussions, casting the future of the talks into question.
Officials in Russia, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia have canceled meetings with diplomats brokering discussions on Georgia’s frozen conflicts, yet another blow to regional diplomacy in the wake of the war in Ukraine.
Officials from the United Nations, the European Union, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe announced on January 31 that because of “timing issues” they had to postpone talks that had been scheduled for late February.
The talks would have been part of the Geneva International Discussions, the forum that brings together officials from Georgia, Russia, and the self-proclaimed republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
The discussions have suffered from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which resulted in the cancelation of some planned meetings last year; instead of the usual four meetings a year only one took place in 2022. Now some observers wonder if the entire format may be coming under threat.
The international officials reiterated their “full commitment” to the discussions, and that this round would be rescheduled for April, but some of the participants in the discussion saw a more sinister motive.
“This is not the first time that the co-chairs have taken a unilateral decision about the cancelation or postponement of a round [of discussions] without any objective reason and without the agreement of the participants in the negotiations,” said Inal Ardzinba, the de facto foreign minister of Abkhazia, in a statement. He said the “biased” approach of the co-chairs “creates additional risks to stability in the region” and that as a result Abkhazia would bar entry to the co-chairs, who were supposed to visit Sukhumi for preparatory talks on February 8 and 9.
The Abkhazian statement was soon followed by similar messages from Moscow, where the Russian Foreign Ministry announced that it considered it “inappropriate” to hold the planned preparatory meetings that had been scheduled for February 3; and from Tskhinvali, where meetings were supposed to take place on February 7.
There was no response from Tbilisi, and a press officer from the Georgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to a request for comment.
The Geneva talks do not deal with political issues related to the two regions’ status; both Abkhazia and South Ossetia broke away from Georgia in wars in the early 1990s. Both established de facto states but the territories are still recognized as part of Georgia by most of the world except Russia and some of its allies.
The talks deal mostly with on-the-ground practical issues like prisoner exchanges and de-facto border issues. But they are cherished in Sukhumi and Tskhinvali as rare international fora in which Abkhazian and South Ossetian officials have a voice, said Olesya Vartanyan, an analyst at the International Crisis Group.
The cancellations are “clearly coordinated with Moscow,” Vartanyan told Eurasianet.
Vartanyan said the de facto Abkhazian government, in particular, has come under increasing pressure from Russia over the past year: to hand over ownership of a holiday complex; to recognize the new Russia-backed, self-proclaimed statelets in eastern Ukraine; and to mobilize its soldiers for the war in Ukraine. “The de facto authorities have been having a very hard time justifying why local males should not join the Russian army despite possessing Russian passports,” she said.
Not long ago, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov accused the “West” of sabotaging the Geneva discussions by linking them to the war in Ukraine.
“We are in favor of Abkhazia and South Ossetia establishing relations with Georgia, there is a dialogue mechanism that we also take part in,” Lavrov said at a January 18 press conference. “Now the western participants in the Geneva discussions between Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia – this is the EU, the UN, the OSCE and the U.S. – are trying to make this format a hostage of the events around Ukraine. This is improper, I think, unprofessional, it means that they are conditioning specific issues in the region on their own political resentments and caprices.”
Canceling the meetings was “not very logical” from the Abkhazian perspective, journalist Inal Khashig wrote in JAMnews. He had two theories, one “optimistic” and the other “pessimistic,” he wrote.
The first is that the Abkhazian de facto authorities “decided to raise the stakes in order to somehow cheer up the stalled negotiation process and thereby return the discussions to their usual course. That is, to blackmail a little for the benefit of the negotiation process.”
The latter, he wrote, is that “The authorities, taking advantage of the cancellation, are gradually curtailing their participation in the Geneva negotiations. … And in order to confirm its relations with Moscow, Abkhazia is sacrificing Geneva, the only international platform in which it could make itself known at a high level.”
Joshua Kucera, a senior correspondent, is Eurasianet's former Turkey/Caucasus editor and has written for the site since 2007.