Georgian PM’s special representative for relations with Russia, Zurab Abashidze, met Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Grigory Karasin, in Prague on June 5 – the third such meeting between the two diplomats in frames of a format launched in December to address issues related mainly with trade, economy, humanitarian and cultural aspects of bilateral relations.
“In overall the constructive and friendly atmosphere [in bilateral meetings] allowed to move forward on number of practical issues,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement after the meeting on June 5. It said the date of next meeting would be agreed later.
“An informal dialogue continued about recovery of Russian-Georgian relations on those directions, where progress is possible in the condition of absence of diplomatic relations,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said.
“Positive dynamic in practical solution of number of issues related to agreed directions of interaction (trade, transport, cultural-humanitarian sphere, science and healthcare) has been noted. It has been noted that shipments of Georgian mineral waters to the Russian Federation started in May and first shipments of Georgian wines is expected in June. Work on resumption of delivery of agricultural products is advancing. Concrete positive steps have been noted in transportation sector,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said, adding that starting from June 1 Verkhny Lars (Zemo Larsi)-Kazbegi border crossing point between the two countries switched to round-the-clock working mode. “Talks will start in the near future about resumption of regular air and land transport connection.”
“On the humanitarian track, number of cultural, sport, scientific, religious and other events with participation of representatives from both countries is increasing significantly. The Russian side informed [the Georgian interlocutor] that number of visas issued for this purpose has increased by 25% over the past half year,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said. “Obstacles are being removed for enhancing contacts between business circles.”
“Work continues for introduction of more flexible approach for issuing Russian visas upon private invitations, including for the purpose of supporting ties between families and relatives,” it said.
“Karasin and Abashidze have welcomed a decision by the Georgian National Olympic Committee to participate in the [2014 Winter] Olympic Games in Sochi and stressed importance of efforts from the both sides for holding of [the Olympic Games] successfully,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said.
In a statement after the meeting, Abashidze also outlined the issues, which were mentioned in the Russian Foreign Ministry’s statement.
The so called process of ‘borderisation’, involving installing wire fences by the Russian troops across the administrative boundary line of breakaway South Ossetia during which Georgia says the line was moved at many locations deeper into the Georgian-controlled areas, was raised by Abashidze during the meeting.
The issue, however, was not discussed in substance, according to the both sides. The format of bilateral dialogue between Karasin and Abashidze was launched to address those areas of bilateral relations where progress is possible, among them trade and economy, leaving issues related to security and the breakaway regions for discussions in frames of the Geneva talks, launched after the August 2008 war.
It is also Tbilisi’s position not to associate Karasin-Abashidze format with the Geneva talks in order not to sideline the latter, which is held with facilitation of co-chairs from EU, UN and OSCE. Karasin is Russia’s chief negotiator in the Geneva talks.
“The sides have reiterated independent nature of the existing format of these bilateral meetings [between Karasin and Abashidze] and the necessity to follow pre-agreed agenda,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said. “At the same time, during the meeting the Georgian side voiced its concern over existing situation on the South Ossetian-Georgian border, including about its humanitarian aspects. After giving relevant explanations, the Russian representative stated that detailed conversation over this issue was anticipated in frames of the Geneva discussions in late June.”
“At the start of the meeting, I reaffirmed the Georgian side’s deep concern about recent developments at the administrative boundary line in the Tskhinvali region, which create grave humanitarian conditions for the local population and which is perceived extremely negatively among the Georgian population in overall and in general creates negative background,” Abashidze said after the meeting.
“Mr. Karasin stated that measures will be taken to study the situation and the issue would be discussed in substance at the next round of Geneva discussions in late June,” he added.
Law on Occupied Territories
After the meeting Karasin told Russia’s Interfax news agency that Russia was still insisting on annulment of Georgia’s law on occupied territories on the grounds that it was making illegal entry into Abkhazia and South Ossetia from territories other than controlled by Tbilisi.
After drawn-out debates the Parliament passed on May 17 with its first reading package of bills on partial decriminalization of and easing sanctions for illegal entry to the breakaway regions. According to proposed bill, first case of violation of the rule should envisage administrative punishment in a form of GEL 400 fine, instead of currently existing criminal responsibility. In case of a repeat violation of this rule by the same person, sanctions under the criminal code will have to apply, but punishment will again be financial penalty in an amount of not less than GEL 800. Imprisonment should only apply in case of repeat violation of this rule only if this crime is carried out in aggravated circumstances if committed in group, with use of force or threat of use of force – in such cases term of imprisonment, according to the bill, should be one year, instead of current prison term from three to five years.
Abashidze said after the meeting that the issue of law on occupied territories was one of those falling among “red lines”, which are not discussed in substance during these bilateral meetings.
“The main issue that poses threat to our tourists is criminal prosecution for visiting South Ossetia and Abkhazia – even if it applies in case of repeat visit [to those regions]. We would consider revocation of this law as the only right decision,” Karasin said.
“Their [Russia’s] stance over law on occupied territories is known and our stance over this issue is also known. From the very beginning we marked the so called red lines on which we won’t yet be able to talk. We are not considering revocation [of the law on occupied territories]. That’s not an issue of our dialogue. We can raise any issue during the conversation, but that’s not the subject of our discussion,” Abashidze said.