Europe – Handle with Care

Georgia`s diplomatic spat with EU Special Representative (EUSR) Herbert Salber last week was as bad-tempered as it was unnecessary. Worse, the confidence-wrecking outburst makes the real differences between Georgia and the EU on breakaway regions even more difficult to address.

Ambassador Salber represents the EU in Geneva International Discussions (GID), aimed at resolving the aftermath of 2008 war with Russia. He was caught on tape during his routine visit to Tskhivali on April 16, congratulating Anatoly Bibilov “on the results of the election” and on “assuming the important position”, referring to April 9 presidential polls. Tbilisi was incensed at EUSR Salber seemingly casting shadow over the EU official position, which stated on April 8 that it “does not recognize the legal framework” in which these elections were held and expressed “firm support” to Georgia’s territorial integrity.

The international mediators have to deal with cantankerous negotiators daily. They are also obliged to consort the figures  far more unsavory than Mr. Bibilov is, granting them the diplomatic decorum for the sake of successful mediation. But to paraphrase the famous parable, having the process of “how the sausages are made” caught on tape is embarrassing. It could not go unremarked in Tbilisi.

But Tbilisi`s reaction was exaggerated. The EU Ambassador to Tbilisi Janos Herman (who, has no authority over Amb. Salber, neither is a part of the mediation effort) was summoned to the Ministry, the demarche were made in Brussels.The Georgian Chief negotiator David Dondua registered strong protest calling EUSR’s position “unacceptable”, “difficult to grasp” and “contrary to international law”. Even the Minister of Culture (!) has chipped in, calling for Salber’s speedy replacement. The opposition – as befits its role – was even more outraged.

This fury serves no positive purpose. It damages Georgia’s standing as EU counterpart and is a pure waste of its negotiating capital. Georgian diplomats know – and politicians must come to understand – that no international agency would remove a mediator under direct pressure. Neither Amb. Salber is a senior European diplomat with years of service as OSCE’ head of operations. His positive reputation protects him from the frontal attacks. Importantly, Berlin has the German diplomat’s back. By attacking Amb. Salber, Tbilisi has barely chipped his armor.

Undercurrent of mistrust

This is a pity, as it saps mutual trust that is necessary to address Tbilisi`s genuine concerns about European Union’s position on Abkhazia and Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia.

The problem is this: by the virtue of his position as mediator, EUSR has to be impartial when it comes to Abkhazia and South Ossetia. While Tbilisi is aware of the need for impartiality, Georgia cannot afford an EU official to seem status-neutral, especially when this official has a considerable impact on shaping the EU policy.

EUSR should be aware of the wider context, where gaffes may be exploited to go a long way towards stoking Euro-skepticism in Georgia. Commentaries on social media threads dedicated to the recent incident were indignant and masterfully stoked into incandescence by dedicated “trolls”.

EU has a special role in Geneva. Two of the agencies that “co-Chair” the mediation process – the UN and OSCE – have Russia as their veto-wielding members. They cannot pronounce themselves officially for Georgia’s territorial integrity. The EU, which faces no such hurdle, can and indeed does speak up for Georgia: through the official statements of the EU Commissioner Mogherini, as well as in an Association Agreement, which is a binding legal document for both Tbilisi and Brussels.

This leaves EUSR exposed to criticism from Russia – often channeled through Tskinvali and Sukhumi – that he is partial towards Tbilisi. Hence, the willingness of the EUSR office to stress – perhaps over-stress – its neutrality. But due to Amb. Salber’s seniority and his standing in the German Foreign Service, Tbilisi is acutely sensitive to any vacillation in his endorsement of Georgia’s territorial integrity. When Tbilisi presses his hand, EUSR feels unjustly instrumentalised and his mediating role compromised.

Much like in any odd relationship, untold frustrations accumulate and conflicts flare at unexpected moments.

Russia’s Geneva “hack”

Part of Amb. Salber’s – or, better said, the EU’s – problem is that the Geneva discussions format has been successfully “hacked” by Russia already back in 2008. Instead of being about Russia’s military invasion of Georgia, it came to be mainly about Tbilisi’s relationship with its restive provinces.

Geneva discussions were set up to mediate between Russia and Georgia, following the August 12, 2008 ceasefire– the so called “six-point agreement”. Its sessions were to be mediated (“co-Chaired”) by three international agencies – EU, which mediated the ceasefire, the UN and OSCE, both of which by then had lasting field presence in Georgia dealing with Abkhazia and Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia, respectively. The negotiating sides would come together in plenary sessions, represented by the Deputy Foreign Ministers of Russia, Georgia, and the US Assistant Secretary of State. Such setup – “format” in diplomatic parlance – made clear that the mediators’ mandate was to facilitate talks between the Russia and Georgia after the war, which left swathes of Georgian lands occupied.

But in October 2008, when the first plenary meeting was to take place, Russia brought along and insisted on including the representatives of Abkhazia and South Ossetia – both which Moscow already recognized as independent states. In the end, the “real” plenary was never held. The format of two working groups including the representatives of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia, which was intended as “procedural” and thus subsidiary to the plenary, became the main one.

Russia has consistently – and counter-factually – claimed, that it is not a party to conflict, but one of the mediators. So the EUSR, which was mandated to mediate chiefly between Georgia and Russia, finds himself mediating between Georgia and its breakaway territories.

Recent months saw series of actions that bring both regions within Russia’s military and political fold. Civil servants from both areas are now mainly paid from Moscow, the militaries of “independent republics” subsumed under Russian bases or put under Russian command and – most recently – the new “joint” investigation and law enforcement agency is set up that seems to supersede Abkhaz police.

Bound by its perceived need to remain neutral, the European Union has been shy to react to these developments publicly, much to Tbilisi’s chagrin and disappointment. Wherein lies the background of nervousness that has, undoubtedly, affected the amplitude of Tbilisi’s response to Amb. Salber’s statement.

Way out?

The best way to start resolving this relationship crisis is for Tbilisi, Brussels and EUSR to recognize that the roots of the problem go beyond their personal idiosyncrasies, but are systemic – linked to a conflict between Europe’s desire to back its allies and its need to work with Russia. Next step would be to back from escalatory rhetoric and decide on realistic ways to move ahead.

Tbilisi has to give the diplomats the lead on this matter, and reign in the politicians too willing to score points at the EU’s expense. The politicians, however, should define – and refine – the course Georgia wants to take on handling Russia side of Geneva discussions.

So far down the road, it is unlikely that the mediators would – or, indeed, could – bring Russia to account for tearing up the 2008 ceasefire. If the EU’s commitment to Georgia is incompatible with EUSR`s role as the leading Geneva co-Chair, perhaps the EU would want to yield the driver seat to either UN or the OSCE, which are status-neutral by institutional design.

Another way is to split the formats that discuss the security matters, mainly concerning Russia and Georgia, from the humanitarian ones, where Tbilisi has to discuss with Tskhinvali and Sukhumi. In the first matter, EUSR could keep the lead, delegating the second to its colleagues. The EU might also want to have a voice speaking in and about Georgia that is equal to Amb. Salber in standing and credibility, but is not encumbered by mediation.

None of these would be easy to do. But discussing serious and controversial matters in a spirit of partnership advances our common cause. Angry spats – do not.