Come Late, Leave Early: Russia-Georgia-Abkhazia-South Ossetia Negotiations

At the Palais des Nations – the UN’s European headquarters- on October 15, 2008, there was an uneven start to negotiations among Russian, Georgian, Abkhazian and South Ossetian negotiators. The Russian representatives arrived 50 minutes late unsure if the representatives of Abkhazia and South Ossetia would be able to participate as full members. After a half hour of discussions in the hallways and offices set aside for the negotiators, a meeting was started. Once everyone was in the room, the Georgian representatives left to show that they did not recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia as separate and legitimate states. A new meeting was set for mid-November for what promises to be long negotiations.

The Palais des Nations is used to long drawn-out negotiations. I followed from the sidelines the two key negotiations of the 1980s – Iran-Iraq and Russia-Afghanistan. The rooms were kept in use during the early 1990s by the negotiations on ex-Yugoslavia. The tensions were so high during the Iraq-Iran conflict that each time a negotiator wanted to go to the bath room, he was accompanied by a UN secretariat member lest a fight break out.

Formal negotiations are only the tip of the iceberg. The role of the UN or other mediators is often in private meetings with only one party at a time.(1) There is often a tendency to try to get the conflicting parties "to the table" too soon, before the issues have been sufficiently explored. However, a formal start to negotiations can serve a symbolic and political purpose. Thus, there were several reasons to call for a first round of Russia-Georgia negotiations, even if neither side had anything to say publicly at this stage.

The first reason was to gather the fairy godmothers to show that they were united in their wish to bring gifts of peace and happiness. For complex reasons, in part due to the difference in timing of the start of the conflicts – South Ossetia prior to the break up of the Soviet Union and Abkhazia in 1992 – mediation of the South Ossetia conflict fell to the Organization for Security and Cooperation (OSCE) while the Abkhazia conflict was the responsibility of the United Nations which had negotiated the 1994 ceasefire. Now, in 2008, the European Union (EU), led by the French presidency of the EU, had played a key role in reaching a ceasefire and wished to continue playing a mediation role. The United States, although a member of the OSCE, sent a separate high-level delegation led by Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried to show US interest in a settlement. It is not clear if the US will continue to participate.

A second reason for holding the meeting was to signify that Russia had fulfilled the first part of the 6-point cease fire agreement negotiated by the French President Nicolas Sarkozy and the Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on 12 August and accepted later the same day by President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia. The Russians have pulled back their troops from what they called a "security area" within Georgian territory adjacent to South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The Russian troops, however, are still stationed within Abkhazia and South Ossetia – both entities having been recognized as sovereign states by Russia. There are now some 300 unarmed military monitors from the EU and the OSCE who monitor these "security zones" within Georgia. They have not yet been able to enter Abkhazia and South Ossetia but the monitors’ mandate should permit them to do so.

The third reason for holding a meeting at this time was to drive home the principle that the uprooted from Abkhazia and South Ossetia should be able to return home. It will be a difficult task, but Geneva is home to both the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees. Both were active on the ground in Georgia and North Ossetia (part of the Russian Federation) very quickly. They can provide information on the status of refugees and internally displaced – people who are often overlooked in practice.

The fourth reason for the meeting was again symbolic, as Geneva is home to all the UN human rights bodies. Just before the negotiators were to meet, the International Court of Justice in the Hague in an advisory decision stressed that Russia and Georgia both had to protect all inhabitants. At the start, Georgia had asked the World Court to order Russia to protect ethnic Georgians, but the judges ruled that all civilians were at risk and needed protection. The President of the World Court, Rosalyn Higgins, was for many years a participant in the Geneva human rights meetings. She knew the importance that the decision of the Court should have on the negotiators in Geneva. She stressed strongly that all the populations remained vulnerable. Hopefully, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights will be able to send human rights monitors to the area.

Creating a framework and an atmosphere for serious negotiations is not easy. One can only hope that the wishes and gifts of the fairy godmothers will have an impact.


Rene Wadlow, Representative to the United Nations, Geneva, Association of World Citizens and editor of the on-line journal of world politics and culture: 


(1) For a good account of the long Afghan negotiations in Geneva, see the account by the lead mediator, UN Undersecretary-General Diego Cordovez Out of Afghanistan: The Inside Story of the Soviet Withdrawal by Diego Cordovez and Selig Harrison (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995, 472pp.).