President Saakashvili is ready to meet South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoity in Georgia’s southern ski resort of Bakuriani “to increase the scope and scale of confidence building,” PM Zurab Nogaideli told the OSCE Permanent Council in Vienna on October 27.
But the venue may prove to be controversial, as many ethnic Ossetian families had to flee Bakuriani during the conflict in South Ossetia in the early 90s.
In his address PM Nogaideli also reiterated Tbilisi’s readiness to engage in talks with the Russian leadership to defuse current tensions, which, as he said, are mainly triggered by unresolved conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. At the same time he accused Russia of taking “unilateral punitive” and “disproportionate” steps and for targeting ethnic Georgians living in Russia with “widespread xenophobia.”
Exactly a year ago, PM Nogaideli unveiled Tbilisi’s detailed peace plan for South Ossetia at the OSCE Permanent Council. The OSCE Ministerial Council announced its support for the plan in December 2005, but there has not been much progress in implementing the document since then.
“The pursuit of peace is a difficult endeavor – requiring patience, discipline, cooperation – and most of all trust,” PM Nogaideli told the OSCE Permanent Council.
The Georgian PM's remarks come after a statement made by Finnish Europe Minister Paula Lehtomaekion, on behalf of the current EU Presidency, on October 25 at a European Parliament debate on South Ossetia.
“Too-quick decisions with regard to the South Ossetian and Abkhazian peace processes must be avoided, as they could endanger the presence of the UN and the OSCE in the region,” Lehtomaekion said, adding that Georgia’s expectations for an enhancement of the EU’s role in resolving the South Ossetian conflict “may be unrealistically high.”
PM Nogaideli said in his address to the OSCE Permanent Council that Georgia has no plans to use force in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and described Russian President Vladimir Putin’s allegations about Tbilisi's plans to regain control over secessionist regions by force as “misleading.” The Russian president's numerous statements about Tbilisi’s hostile plans have made Georgian officials reiterate this a number of times in recent speeches.
PM Nogaideli said that demilitarization of the conflict zone is essential for the peace process, but added that it will be impossible if there is no political will in Russia.
“Let us shed our illusions that somehow, the de-facto authorities in South Ossetia will comply with these demands. On the contrary, it is their active intention not only to hold onto them – but to acquire even more weapons – as recent OSCE reports show,” PM Nogaideli said.
“These weapons – which are more visible and widespread than ever – will only leave South Ossetia when Russia decides to take them out… When Russia acts in a concrete and verifiable manner to demilitarize South Ossetia – we will all say that they are promoting peace,” he added.
The Georgian PM also urged for an increase in the number of OSCE monitors in the region to cover the entire territory of breakaway South Ossetia and not only the conflict zone, which includes a 15-km radius around Tskhinvali.
“To reduce tension and counter the growing threats, it is high time that we establish a joint Georgian-Russian-OSCE permanent monitoring presence at the Roki Tunnel [linking breakaway South Ossetia with Russia’s North Ossetia],” Nogaideli said.
He hailed the OSCE-led rehabilitation project for South Ossetia, but added that it is not enough.
“We must also build jobs – and create a stable future for the citizens of South Ossetia… We must increase the scope and scale of confidence building measures between both sides… And we must increase the frequency of direct, bilateral contacts,” Nogaideli said. He added that President Saakashvili is ready to meet South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoity in Bakuriani.
“Bakuriani is home to thousands of Ossetians who for centuries have lived in peace and harmony with their neighbors outside the Tskhinvali/South Ossetia district – despite the recent conflict. This step, indeed this new initiative, is intended to create dialogue, build trust, and create a powerful signal that there is no alternative to peace,” the Georgian PM said.
The OSCE Chairman-in-Office, Belgian Foreign Minister Karel De Gucht, called on the Georgian and South Ossetian sides while he was visiting Tbilisi on October 2 to hold talks at the “highest-level.”
Foreign Minister of breakaway South Ossetia Murat Jioyev told Rustavi 2 television on October 27 that proposing a venue – Bakuriani - of possible talks as a precondition of the meeting is unacceptable and said the venue should be negotiated.
He also said that signing of an agreement on the non-resumption of hostilities should be a result of the talks on the highest level.
But President Saakashvili made it clear during his address to the UN General Assembly Session in New York in September that Georgia will sign this agreement only after the internationalization of the peacekeeping operation.
Although PM Zurab Nogaideli refrained from harsh criticism of the Russian peacekeeping operation in his address, he noted that Georgia is calling for the introduction of “neutral forces into the region, capable of bringing lasting law and order through police training.”
Nogaideli also said that Tbilisi is ready to grant South Ossetia the “widest form of autonomy possible” and called on the OSCE to convene a special conference on the overall implementation of the peace plan before the next OSCE Ministerial, which is scheduled for early December.
In his address, PM Nogaideli also focused on Russia’s treatment of Georgians living in Russia, as well as on sanctions imposed on Georgia.
“The latest blockade has created real difficulties for Georgia,” Nogaideli said.
He noted that the sanctions have caused Georgia to lose up to 1.5% of GDP and 17% of Georgia’s export markets.
“It has disrupted a number of our domestic industries and caused financial losses. And it has forced us to look for new markets and new suppliers, cutting historic ties across the board,” Nogaideli added.
But he stressed that despite the sanctions, “Georgia will grow by double digits this year” and “despite the disruptions – we will keep inflation in the single digits.”
“And our energy sector, infrastructure projects, and education plans will not be de-railed or disrupted,” PM Nogaideli added.
He said that over 1 000 Georgians living in Russia were deported, or forced to flee in the last month.
“I am thinking here of Mr. Giorgi Gvichiani – a six-time world arm-wrestling champion who was brutally murdered in Moscow a few weeks ago. Of Tengiz Togonidze who died while being forcibly deported back to Georgia because the authorities refused to give him his asthma medication. Of Giorgi Tskipurishvili, a nine year old boy who was separated from his family, and sent back to Georgia alone and terrified…. These are real people – the targets of widespread xenophobia – whose only crime was being Georgian,” PM Nogaideli said.
He said that the latest moves by Russia are part of a larger strategy “to put pressure on many neighbors in our region, including most notably Moldova and Ukraine.”