For the past year-and-a-half, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's administration has probed for settlements of what are known as the frozen conflicts the separatist struggles involving Abkhazia and South Ossetia. If Saakashvili's government ever succeeds in forging peace plans that restore Georgia's territorial integrity, the new US ambassador to Georgia, John Tefft, stands to play an important role.
Tefft presented his credentials to Saakashvili in late August, replacing Richard Miles, who had served as the American envoy in Tbilisi for just over three years. Tefft's chief diplomatic tasks will be encouraging Georgia's ongoing democratization process, and helping Tbilisi solve the long-standing geopolitical dilemmas of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
During his Senate confirmation hearing in May, Tefft called Georgia a "tremendous success story," adding that he would work "to ensure that the promises of the  Rose Revolution are met." [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. He also stressed that regional stability required Georgia and Russia to "establish a new, constructive relationship based on respect, shared economic interests and mutual security." He went on to indicate that Abkhazia and South Ossetia settlements would help put Georgian-Russian relations on a stable path. "A peaceful solution is the only answer to South Ossetia and Abkhazia, but the status quo should not remain," he said.
At present, Russia enjoys a dominant role in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, with Russian peacekeepers deployed in both regions. Many political analysts in Tbilisi and Washington see the Russian peacekeepers as an obstacle to, rather than a facilitator of peace settlements. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Since the early 1990s, both regions have developed into de facto Russian protectorates, with a large number of Abkhazian and South Ossetian residents even holding Russian citizenship. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Both territories currently seek independence, while Georgia is offering the regions broad autonomy within a federal framework. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
During a recent interview in Tbilisi, Tefft reiterated that a change in diplomatic approach is essential if negotiated settlements are to be reached. "Freezing [the current status of separatist regions] in time, keeping them at the current status quo, does not seem to be an option," he said.
Tefft expressed dissatisfaction with the existing mediation framework, adding that the United States would emphasize continued engagement with Russia and the European Union to "try to find a way to unfreeze these frozen conflicts, which only bring suffering and prevent development in the region." In trying to encourage Moscow to accept a new negotiating framework, Tefft indicated that Washington was interested "in providing Russia with assistance in dealing with the many challenges it faces" throughout the Caucasus region.
Alexander Rondeli, head of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies, identified Russian patronage of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as perhaps the biggest obstacle to transparent and effective international mediation. Russia "has made a huge commitment to the separatist regions, and the issue is now deeply imbedded in the internal politics of Russia," Thus, he added, US diplomats will likely be hard pressed to exert influence on Russia to agree to any changes in the existing negotiating frameworks.
Over the past two weeks, geopolitical maneuvering concerning the Abkhazia and South Ossetia conflicts has intensified, with readily evident antagonism between Georgia and Russia appearing to heighten the chances of a resumption of hostilities. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. On September 20, Tefft met with Georgian State Minister for Conflict Resolution Georgi Khaindrava to discuss the peace process. Following the meeting, Tefft expressed Washington's support for Georgian government efforts to restore the country's territorial integrity.
A deal reached in late May covering the withdrawal of Russian forces in Georgia raised hopes that Tbilisi and Moscow could find common ground on the frozen conflicts issue. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. But no progress toward a settlement has been made since then. Several Georgian initiatives to promote negotiations among Tbilisi and the separatist regions have fallen flat. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
During the past few days, Georgia and Russian diplomats have squabbled over the South Ossetian peace process, with Georgian officials encountering determined Russian resistance to any change in the negotiating framework. Khaindrava, speaking at a news conference in Moscow on September 29, complained that the approach taken by the Joint Control Commission (JCC) comprising representatives of Georgia, Russia and North and South Ossetia was "absolutely unfair," the Civil Georgia web site reported. The Russian Foreign Ministry maintains that scrapping the JCC would be "counterproductive."
Georgian officials believe that lasting peace in South Ossetia will not be attainable unless Russia agrees to three changes: establishing a new negotiating framework; altering current peacekeeping practices in order to better promote stability in the conflict zones; and stopping shipments of arms and supplies to the separatist territories. Unless there is immediate movement in all three spheres, Khaindrava indicated that Georgia would likely unilaterally withdraw from the JCC framework in the near future. Georgian officials have also threatened to set a deadline for the withdrawal of Russian peacekeepers in the two separatist regions. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov declared September 30 that Moscow would pull its troops out of the two territories only if Abkhaz and South Ossetian leaders called on Russia to do so, the Interfax news agency reported. Abkhaz and South Ossetian leaders are on record as welcoming a continued Russian peacekeeping presence. Sukhumi and Tskhinvali also are opposed to any changes to the existing negotiating frameworks.
Tefft and his American colleague in Moscow, Ambassador William Burns, will be challenged in the coming weeks to keep the potential for conflict in South Ossetia in check. With tension rapidly escalating, Burns met with Russian First Deputy Foreign Minister Valeri Loshchinin to discuss the peace process in South Ossetia. "The United States stressed that the use of military force in the solving of the conflict [in South Ossetia] was unacceptable and declared its readiness to help defuse the situation," a Russian Foreign Ministry statement said.
Mark David Simakovsky is a US Fulbright Research Fellow in Georgia, based at the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies (GFSIS).