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What to expect from the Geneva conference

Monday, September 29
On October 18-19 Geneva will host an international conference as envisaged by the last paragraph of the Sarkozy-brokered six point ceasefire plan. The conference is extremely important, because it will be obliged to show that common sense prevails in international relations. It will need to show that Russia is civilized enough to retreat and give up what it has conquered by military means.

The negotiations will be pretty difficult for all concerned. This has already been made clear by the fact that the original conference start date of October 15 has been postponed. Experts need time to meet before the conference begins to settle a number of controversial points.

During his visit to Tbilisi the NATO Secretary General expressed his discontent over the Sarkozy plan. One aspect of it he highlighted was that it is not quite clear whether Russia is being treated as a side in the conflict or a mediator. There have also been questions about where the EU observers will be located. The Kremlin categorically opposes the deployment of observers in the separatist regions but agrees they should be stationed in the so called Buffer Zones. Georgia and EU insist on the observers functioning inside the separatist controlled territories. Georgia also does not agree to Russian bases being deployed there. It has declared these territories to be occupied by Russia. It is also demanding that the buffer zones, whose existence is a clear breach of the ceasefire agreement, are abolished.

Russia is talking about the “demilitarization” of Georgia. What does this mean? Georgia is a sovereign country protecting its territory. For the last 16 years Russia has illegally supplied separatist groups on this territory with arms, ammunition and mercenaries, creating the military threat to Georgia which we finally saw the extent of in August. Moscow has also started building military bases and infrastructure on the occupied territories. Its military actions further created thousands of IDPs from places outside the conflict zone, where occupying Russian soldiers allowed bandits of whatever nationality to kill, rape, loot, rob and unleash criminal activities. What the demilitarization of Georgia alone is therefore supposed to accomplish is one of the things Europe will have to decide.

The 6th paragraph of the Sarkozy plan caused problems from the beginning. In the original text it suggested that the conference would discuss the status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but following a demand from the Georgian side the conference remit was changed to a discussion of security issues. This was of course three weeks before Moscow unilaterally recognized the independence of the breakaway territories, thus creating a very different context in which to discuss security questions. From October 1 EU observers should start their work. Much depends from where and how they perform their duties. The separatist leaders backed by Moscow have so far been only aggressive and rude towards the more civilized Europeans.

Europe does not want its relations with Moscow to deteriorate completely. Neither does Russia want to create further strain in its relationship with the West. However the Kremlin wants to hold on to the occupied territories, thus giving itself confidence that at last the Empire is returning. Europe does not want to agree to the new order Russia is proposing, to rule by force and injustice. But somewhere in the middle of this complicated chess game is tiny Georgia – a small boat in a stormy ocean in search of a peaceful harbour.

The Georgian opposition is critical of the authorities. The leader of Georgia’s Way, Salome Zurabishvili, expresses her concern that Georgia is not properly preparing for Geneva and therefore leaving its fate in the hands of other nations. Zurabishvili thinks that the leaders of the country are concentrating on getting financial support from the West to strengthen their own position whilst ignoring the crucial issues to be discussed at Geneva. She insists that the people, not one person, should decide what is in the country’s best interests, although how this might be ascertained, and by whom, she is not so clear about.

Now there is less than a month to go before the conference. Let us see how different Georgia and the world look by the time it takes place, and therefore, what the global negotiators will really be talking about, regardless of the ostensible subject.