The European Union is looking into possibilities on how breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia can benefit from the EU’s Neighborhood Policy (ENP) with Georgia, which should eventually contribute to confidence-building between the sides, EU officials said after concluding a week-long visit on January 22.
The EU fact-finding team, which was led by Hugues Mingarelli, the European Commission Director for Eastern Europe, South Caucasus and Central Asia and Peter Semneby, the EU special representative to South Caucasus, visited Georgia on January 15-22. The visit also included trips to Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
The findings of the mission will be discussed in Brussels within the next few weeks and concrete recommendations will be worked out based on these discussions, Peter Semneby said at a news conference in Tbilisi on January 22.
“The purpose of this mission was to see what more the EU could do in the conflict areas for conflict resolution and confidence building,” Per Eklund, Head of the European Commission Delegation to Georgia, said at a news conference.
EU officials said that the team will develop its recommendations on concrete measures “within the framework of existing mechanisms.”
“The purpose of the team was not to reinvent the wheel. The mission was tasked to build upon what the EU is already making on the ground in Georgia. That includes the European Neighborhood Policy and financial instrument supporting the ENP. It also includes the border support team that has been in place here in Georgia already for two years,” Peter Semneby said.
“All these mechanisms are those that already apply to Georgia and that have been negotiated with Georgia. The purpose is to extend these programs that apply to Georgia, to Abkhazia and South Ossetia in order to encourage contacts to increase confidence between the parties,” he said.
The EU officials reiterated that promoting confidence building between the conflicting sides will be a top priority of all the activities to be undertaken in the conflict zones under the auspices of the EU.
“Without confidence-building you will never lead to conflict resolution issues. This is a process in which we must be patient,” Ambassador Eklund said.
EU diplomats said that all activities will be carried out based on “the obvious fact” that the EU supports Georgia’s territorial integrity.
Authorities in breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia say they welcome EU-funded assistance programs, but are cautious as well.
Foreign Minister of breakaway Abkhazia Sergey Shamba said after talks with the EU delegation on January 18 that “despite disagreements in political issues,” the Abkhaz side considers EU-funded programs “useful,” Apsnipress news agency reported.
“The European Commission is financing several projects in Abkhazia. But this does not mean that we reject our key interests and independence,” Shamba said.
He also said that Sokhumi wants to establish a dialogue and “direct links with the European Union” without the mediation of Tbilisi.
“Abkhazia is a part of Europe and we have the right to integrate into European society... I do not think that linking Abkhazia with Europe will be effective through Georgia or through any other state. It is necessary to establish direct ties,” Shamba said, adding that Abkhazia wants to be involved “in the new strategy of the European Union.”
In a statement issued on January 22 the Georgian Foreign Ministry emphasized that “the EU Assistance projects elaborated on the basis of the report of the fact-finding mission will be implemented in the conflict zones solely within the frameworks of the EU-Georgia ENP Action Plan and will be coordinated by the Government of Georgia.”
Per Eklund, Head of the European Commission Delegation to Georgia, also emphasized on January 22 that Abkhazia and South Ossetia will benefit from assistance programs “as parts of Georgia.”
The EU officials' visit to Georgia has demonstrated the European Union's cautious approach towards Tbilisi’s efforts to increase the profile of its loyal ‘authorities’ in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Tbilisi considers the Abkhaz government-in-exile, which is now based in upper Kodori Gorge of breakaway region, the only legitimate government in Abkhazia. And a so-called alternative government of South Ossetia, led by Dimitri Sanakoev, has recently been established in the Georgian-controlled areas of South Ossetia.
“None of the two alternatives do we consider legitimate [in South Ossetia],” Ambassador Eklund said on January 22.
“This [EU] mission met with Mr. [Eduard] Kokoity [secessionist leader of South Ossetia] and not, for various reasons, with Mr. [Dimitri] Sanakoev,” Peter Semneby said, but refrained from further elaboration on the issue.
He also declined to comment on details of discussions the EU had on this issue with the Georgian authorities.
The Georgian Foreign Ministry said in a statement on January 22 that Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili’s January 19 meeting with the EU officials was attended by head of the Abkhaz government-in-exile Malkhaz Akishbaia and with other governmental officials.