Toivo Klaar on Geneva Talks, Engagement with Sokhumi, Tskhinvali
Civil Georgia, Tbilisi / 8 Feb.'18 / 11:00

Toivo Klaar. Photo: EUSR Office

Toivo Klaar, long-time Estonian and EU diplomat, was appointed as the EU Special Representative for the South Caucasus and the crisis in Georgia in November 2017. 

Klaar, who led the Central Asia Division at the European External Action Service (EEAS) prior to this appointment, will be tasked to contribute to peaceful settlement of conflicts in the region in his new capacity. interviewed the new Special Representative during his recent visit to Tbilisi.

You have been recently appointed as the EU Special Representative for the South Caucasus and the crisis in Georgia. Could you tell us more about the work of the Special Representative and specifically on your priorities in the office? Are there any particular areas that you intend to focus more during your tenure?

The European Union has invested a lot in the South Caucasus and in Georgia, in particular, over many years and certainly over the past years in the form of the general support that it provides to Georgia for its development, and also through the EUSR office and through the EU Monitoring Mission. So, there is a lot of concrete support that is provided to Georgia and that shows our commitment to the country.

The existence of the Special Representative’s Office demonstrates the EU’s interest in the settlement of conflicts not only in Georgia, but also in the region. My role is to focus on the conflict in Georgia, on helping to work towards its settlement, to manage the Geneva International Discussions; I am also contributing to what the EU can do in the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process. So there are many facets of our work.

As for my specific priorities, I cannot easily say that there is all that much new that can be invented, because my predecessors have been doing a very good work, but in the end, we are limited by the degree of willingness of the parties and their ability to find new ways forward.

So, we will continue working through the Geneva process. Last week we met with Georgian interlocutors. We are going to travel to Abkhazia next week. We will see how we can contribute to some kind of new dynamism to the process. This is something my predecessors have been working on for many years and I am here and my team is here to help bring about a solution, but ultimately solutions are very much also dependent on the actors here on the ground, and this willingness is not something that we can, somehow, conjure up. We can help politically through the European Union, through the work of my team, but we are only there to support and to push. We cannot create a solution.

As the Special Representative you are co-chairing the Geneva International Discussions on behalf of the European Union. What is the official policy of the European Union on the conflict in Georgia and do you think it has been effective in handling the challenges that Georgia is facing?

The European Union has a very clear position. The EU is committed to Georgia’s territorial integrity and this has been our clear position from day one, likewise we have a policy of non-recognition and engagement with the breakaway regions and this is also something that we try to develop but always keeping in mind the first principle that Georgia’s territorial integrity is not under question and the EU is committed to it.

On the engagement side, we certainly always listen carefully to the positions voiced by the Government of Georgia. This is important. But for engagement to work, it is important to continue listening to all the relevant stakeholders with a view to improving the security situation, the livelihoods of people, freedom of movement, environmental protection and a broad range of other issues, which cannot be addressed only on one side of the Administrative Boundary Lines (ABLs). More often than not it calls for everyone to be pragmatic enough to make progress on a problem which affects everyone. For instance, if you have a stink bug threatening the crops and if you just address this issue on one side of the ABL and you do not do enough on the other side, it will simply come back to you again and again. This is no help to the farmers who are working so hard to make a living. So, you have to work on all sides.

There is a lot that has been done and has been done in coordination. Of course, there are nuances where one can have discussions about what to do or what not to do, but in general, there are very many areas, where we have a shared understanding on the usefulness of engaging with the de facto authorities. This is in the interests of the populations in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and this is in the interests of Georgia, in general.

The non-use of force and the return of internally displaced persons and refugees are the two main issues discussed at GID meetings. Has there been any progress on the two issues recently and if not, what do you think can be done to take a step forward on these two matters? Some would even say these discussions have been stalled for quite some time now.

I would not necessarily say the discussions have stalled. In general, the Geneva format is a somewhat misunderstood framework. This is partly because it does not provide for great headlines, and there are no major events coming out of it. Of course, there is always the argument that we should have greater progress on various issues, but at the same time, Geneva is the only formal forum that brings together the Georgians and the Russians, where the Abkhaz and the South Ossetians are also present, plus the Americans, the European Union, the OSCE and the United Nations. So, it is an important forum as such, and it provides an arena for discussions and for talks that are not necessarily part of the formal agenda. So, for that reason alone, Geneva is useful.

As for the specific topics – let’s start with the question of IDPs; indeed, it is unfortunate that there are certain participants who do not want to engage on this issue. We consider that there should be engagement on IDPs because it is an important one. We will continue to keep pushing, and hopefully at one point there will be a real engagement on this issue.

In fact, there has been some progress on non-use of force. More specifically, there is less distance between various participants regarding the joint statement. But non-use of force is not something that exists in a vacuum. It is important, but it is part of a larger package; we also have to see how we ensure non-use of force. With agreement on the non-use of force statement, we move on to the next step, which is also part of the Geneva talks, which is what kind of security mechanisms can help underpin non-use of force and create greater confidence.

So overall, I would not say that it has stalled. I think there has been some progress, but it is not fast progress. It is just not moving as fast as some would like, but it is moving.

The overall security environment on ground remains fragile: Russia is refusing to fully implement the ceasefire agreement of 2008 and pursues active militarization of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali regions, while serious human rights violations continue to occur in the occupied regions. What are your primary concerns regarding the human rights situation in the region?

Indeed, since I left as head of EUMM in 2014, the situation has become even more difficult for ordinary persons, for individuals in both South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Freedom of movement is more restricted, access to mother-tongue education has become more difficult. And these are very serious issues; these are the issues we have addressed with our counterparts in Sukhumi and Tskhinvali as well as in Moscow.

What concerns me is that people cannot move freely, and also the argument put forward by interlocutors in Sukhumi, and also by Russian interlocutors, that in fact the number of people crossing the Inguri River have not gone down, even if the number of crossing points have been reduced. That may even be true, but is it true that the same people are crossing? Because if you have very poor people, living close to the Inguri River, and who could previously cross fairly directly, they may not have the means to take a bus to the Inguri bridge and do a long detour to get across to the other side, to the Tbilisi-administered territory.

The fact that the number of crossing points has been reduced is a real issue for ordinary people, for local farmers, for school children who used to go across the ABL and go to a school on the other side, and cannot do so anymore, because it will not work, even if they could cross over the Inguri bridge, they would spend too much time every day. So, they are either separated from their families because they have to stay on the Tbilisi-administered territory, or they lose access to the school they used to go to. And the condition of schools in Gali district is not very good. As a result, the ability to learn Georgian has been reduced and this is a real problem. This is not something that is just happening by itself. This is happening because of very specific measures being taken by Sukhumi and by the Russian authorities, and this is not something that should be done. It is as simple as that – this should not be happening, there is no good justification for this.

These are the topics that we have been focusing on at our meetings with the de facto authorities, and there have been results from our work; it is not that we only make statements, and there are no results. We did have a response from our Abkhaz counterparts when we communicated that their new residency permits were very limiting and were putting great pressure on ethnic Georgians living in the Gali district, and that this was not the right way to go about.

Likewise, we have raised the issue of Mother Tongue Based - Multilingual Education in Gali, and it seems we have seen some thinking evolve there as well. Not as much as we would like and so far not with many concrete results, but we hope that this will gradually help improve the overall situation regarding education in Abkhazia as well as the concrete situation of Georgian-language children.

What are your primary concerns regarding the security situation in and around the two regions? And in this light, could you tell us more on EU’s stance on the developments around the murder of Giga Otkhozoria?

Yes, the security situation on the ground has not always been satisfactory. There have been several cases in the past of killings, kidnappings, and other worrying developments. The situation appeared to have seriously stabilized since 2012, but some sporadic serious incidents, like the killing of Giga Otkhozoria on the Abkhaz ABL in 2016, and the fact that the perpetrator has not been brought to justice, are simply not acceptable. It brings instability on the ABLs, and it creates instability in the regions themselves; we need to work towards ensuring that the populations in the two regions have the same kind of protection and enjoy the same rule of law as the population on Tbilisi-administered territory.

The continuation of this conflict - and we need to keep in mind that this has been ongoing for 25 years by now - is a huge challenge for locals, ordinary people, who cannot go about their businesses, who do not feel as secure as they have every right to. Any step that can help the conflict affected population live a more normal life and go about their personal affairs should be supported. Detentions on the South Ossetian ABL particularly, but also on the Abkhaz ABL, when people are being grabbed for having crossed a line on the ground, are unacceptable. It happens often that they cross to an orchard or to a field that they have been farming for decades, and then somebody jumps out and points a gun at them. This is a terrible situation for locals, on all sides of the ABLs, and we raise this on a constant basis in Geneva and during the Incident Prevention and Response Mechanism meetings. This is simply not acceptable, and there is no justification to that.

There is also a question of property rights that are being violated. People do not have access to their property, be it a field where they can no longer farm, or a house that they can no longer go to. These are serious violations of the rights of individuals and these are the issues that we draw the attention of our counterparts in Sukhumi, Tskhinvali and Moscow, whenever we meet.

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