12 years after war: Georgia moving forward but still searching for justice

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

People attend a wreath laying ceremony at a cemetery in Tbilisi, Georgia, 8 August 2019. [Zurab Kurtsikidze/EPA/EFE]

The Russian aggression of August 2008 against Georgia was a blatant attempt to change the borders of Europe by force, launching a series of events spreading over the wider region, writes David Zalkaliani.

David Zalkaliani is the Foreign Minister of Georgia.

The boundless array of challenges that the world faces today only magnifies the sense of vulnerability for all states and particularly the ones like Georgia. For the past 12 years, we have been living in a strenuous reality of the ongoing Russian occupation of Georgia’s two historical regions of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia with its increasing humanitarian and human rights toll for conflict-affected people. Following the large-scale military aggression against Georgia in 2008, the whole European security architecture took a devastating blow. The August 2008 war was a blatant attempt to change the borders of Europe by force and it launched a series of events spreading over the wider region with dramatic security implications and longstanding undermining imprint on the rules-based international order.

Today, there are plenty, who erroneously assume that absence of armed hostilities in Georgia’s occupied territories automatically equals peace. It cannot be farther from the truth however. The context with intensive ethnic discrimination of Georgians, deprivation of their lives, cases of torture, kidnapping and illegal detainment, restriction of freedom of movement, prohibition of education in native language and violation of the right of IDPs and refugees to return to their homes, not to mention Russia’s continuous violation of the EU-mediated Ceasefire Agreement and steps towards de-facto annexation of two Georgian regions, is absolutely far beyond any notion of peace.

These challenges have only amplified as the world has entered the COVID-19 pandemic. Russia not only ignored the calls of the UN Secretary-Generally for a Global Ceasefire but further intensified the use of hybrid warfare against Georgia. As a part of a comprehensive disinformation campaign, Georgia’s public health laboratory – Lugar Center came under fire by being accused of developing dangerous pathogens for military purposes. Another side of increased hybrid tactics during the COVID-19 has been the intensified process of so-called “borderization” with new Berlin Walls having been erected along the occupation line, denials on medical evacuation, as well as shooting a Georgian peaceful civilian, who still remains in illegal custody in Tskhinvali.

In response to these continuous and deliberate attempts to destabilize the country and deviate Georgia from its historic choice repeatedly confirmed by its citizens, the Georgian Government relentlessly moves forward towards consolidation of democracy and integration in the EU and NATO, along with its unwavering peaceful conflict resolution policy.

Georgia – an EU Associated Partner and one of the most committed strategic partners of the EU in the region – has never been closer to the EU. And I believe Georgia’s European aspirations will translate into more ambitious benchmarks and more forward-looking milestones in relations with the EU. Georgia has demonstrated significant progress on Euro-Atlantic integration path, being one of the most reliable partners of NATO contributing to global security, and an aspirant with all practical tools to become a member of the Alliance, in accordance with the Bucharest Summit decision. Against all odds, Georgia’s democratic transition has been successful, displaying a significant progress in good governance, the rule of law and the respect to human rights. The Government has taken a historic step launching the Constitutional amendments and progressive electoral reforms that are based on the best European traditions of the Parliamentary democracy and incorporate the OSCE/ODIHR recommendations. The tremendous efforts and strong will of the Georgian Government to increase parliamentary pluralism and allow for a more representative legislature for 2020, transitioning to a fully proportional system in 2024, is a vivid demonstration of Georgia’s commitment to hold the elections in a unprecedentedly fair, free and democratic environment. With such an outstanding track record of the political and economic reforms over the years, Georgia has been rightly seen as a top reformer of Eastern Europe.

Georgia has been trying to find a way to resolve the Russia-Georgia conflict peacefully through dialogue and negotiations. Tremendous efforts have been spent in the peace talks, in an attempt to find durable solutions for addressing the security and human rights challenges of the conflict-affected people. However, 12 years of the Geneva International Discussions, co-chaired by the EU, UN, and OSCE, have been lacking the progress even on purely humanitarian issues, including on fate of hundreds of thousands of IDPs and refugees hoping to return to their homes in safety and dignity. And Georgia’s steadfast stance to peace and security, its compliance with the 12 August 2008 Ceasefire Agreement and the non-use of force principle has not been reciprocated by Russia up to this point.

The reason is simple – the Russian Federation continues to play the role of a sideline observer, showing no willingness to engage in meaningful and result-oriented talks. Despite these challenges, we do not see any alternative to peace negotiations, and the Geneva Discussions with its Incident Prevention and Response Mechanisms have been a vivid demonstration for this, being important instruments for alleviating major escalations for more than a decade.

Georgia has been particularly active in its efforts for reconciliation and confidence building between the communities split by war and occupation line. From the very beginning of the COVID-19, the Georgian Government showed its desire to provide full-fledged support to the people on the other side of the occupation line, including through free medical treatment and significant humanitarian aid.

We managed to support people in Abkhazia region, while the Tskhinvali occupation regime still continues to refuse receiving any assistance. Georgia’s peace initiative “A Step to a Better Future” has served as a good illustration of our firm commitment to care for lives of the conflict-affected people in Abkhazia and Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia, to improve their socio-economic and humanitarian conditions and facilitate engagement across the divide. In this regard, we remain curious to listen to the voices from Sokhumi who highlight the importance of dialogue and building bridges. Indeed, we have a lot in common with Abkhazs and Ossetians and share the same interests in so many fields. All goods and benefits Georgia delivers to its people though country’s sustainable democratic and economic development and European integration are equally envisaged for the people on the other side of the divide. This is and should be our common success, and one day, I believe, we will build and care for our common state peacefully. However, we have to no notice that time is not in favour to us and the window of opportunity is getting narrower each year.

The current deadlock, we are facing in the peace process, cannot be explained from the perspective of local dynamics and through the prism of Russia-Georgia relations. Without seeing a wider context, targeting the entire Black Sea region and Eastern flank of Europe, we risk drawing wrong conclusions. Lack of adequate response of the international community to the aggressive pattern against the sovereign states in Europe establishes number of dangerous precedents promising serious negative implications for the entire rules-based international system. This is targeting the very core of the European security and the practice shows that the hybrid warfare tools, tested once by Russia, are likely to emerge elsewhere on the map.

No doubt, inaction is always seen by Moscow as a form of authorization, so Europe needs to hold its ground and take steps sending a strong message that attacking the basics of European security will not go unaccounted for. Hence, we deem it crucial that the Russia-Georgia conflict alongside with Ukrainian crises remains high on the radar, for the simple reason of them having the same goal, undermining security of Europe by creating hotspots of destabilization in the Black Sea region. Thus, more needs to be done to ensure that Russia fulfils its obligations vis-à-vis the EU taken under the 12 August 2008 Ceasefire Agreement and withdraws its forces from Georgia, which in return can open a leeway for building a sustainable peace in the wider region. I truly think that the success of peaceful conflict resolution in Georgia could serve as a transformative power for the entire Eastern Partnership Space and the Black Sea region.

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