Georgian PM’s special envoy for relations with Russia, Zurab Abashidze, briefed lawmakers on September 27 about results of and challenges in his bilateral talks with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin.
Hearing, which lasted for more than two hours, was convened by a parliamentary commission on territorial integrity and committees on foreign affairs and diaspora issues.
Abashidze and Karasin have so far met for four times in frames of a format launched in December, 2012 to address issues related mainly with trade, economy, humanitarian and cultural aspects of bilateral relations – topics on which both Tbilisi and Moscow say it is possible to achieve a progress.
Talks does not touch upon security, foreign policy and dispute over breakaway regions – issues on which, Abashidze says, both sides have their red lines and on which progress is not possible at this stage. Another reason of narrowing range of issues discussed in this format is to avoid discussing topics that fall within the Geneva talks, launched after the August, 2008 war. In order not to undermine internationally mediated Geneva talks, Abashidze said, Tbilisi tries not to overlap discussions in Geneva by creating parallel formats.
The Georgian PM’s special envoy said that his bilateral talks with Russia have already yielded results and cited reopening of the Russian market for the Georgian products.
In his opening remarks, Abashidze, however, also said that the Russian market is fraught with “political risk.”
“We are openly telling our businesses – we are opening doors, but it is up to you to decide whether you will enter into that open door or not,” he continued. “It is a risk that you take.”
“Any market has its risks, especially the Russian one. So no one can give any guarantee to a businessman that exports will not be suspended again for some kind of political reasons. I think our businessmen understand it very well. Our winemakers are trying to maintain quality of their products and we are explaining to them what they have to deal with and they know it better than we do, because many of them experienced it in 2006 when Russia banned import of the Georgian wines; since then many of the Georgian companies diversified their export markets; so I do not think that our winemakers are planning to redirect their exports from various countries and concentrate exports on Russia. I think that they have a very wise approach in this regard and on the other hand, having in mind experience of previous years, they try to work based on advanced payments in order not to sustain financial losses in case something goes wrong,” Abashidze said.
The demand on the Georgian wines is high, he said and added that initial projection was that up to 5 million bottles of wine would have been exported this year. “But as data show up to 8 million bottles have already been shipped to Russia and the figure will of course increase by the end of the year,” Abashidze said.
He said that value of Georgian exports to Russia may reach USD 100 million this year. “Of course it’s not astronomical amount of money, but our businesses and farmers will benefit from it,” he added.
Georgia's total exports to Russia were worth of USD 45.8 million in 2012; the figure has almost doubled already in the first eight months of 2013.
As Russian markets started to open for Georgian products – wine and mineral waters were the first to regain access, value of total exports to Russia also started increasing from the beginning of second quarter of this year and total exports to Russia were worth of USD 84 million in January-August, 2013, according to the Georgian state statistics office, Geostat.
Abashidze expressed hope that it would be possible to also start exporting agriculture products, including citruses to the Russian market by the end of October or in November.
He said that an agreement had also been reached to resume road freight transportation by Georgian cargo carriers. “Some minor details remain, including visas for drivers and during my recent meeting [with Karasin] I was told that these issues had also been resolved and in the nearest future the Georgian freight carriers will be able to engage in these activities,” Abashidze said, adding that modernization and increasing capacity of the Kazbegi border-crossing point with Russia will further facilitate trade.
Abashidze said that it was also possible to achieve removal of ban, imposed by Russia in 2006, on transportation of Georgian freight to Russia on railway via Azerbaijani rail network.
The Georgian Railway, Abashidze said, is receiving proposals from Russia to use the Georgian rail infrastructure for transportation of oil products from Russia’s Dagestan via Azerbaijan to the Georgian Black Sea ports.
“Lots of money and interests are involved here and I think it is also important for our economy,” he said.
He said that Russia has increased issuing of visas to the Georgian citizens, but also added that lifting of visa rules is not expected.
“Moscow links this issue to restoration of diplomatic relations, which cannot be put on the agenda now because of obvious reasons,” Abashidze said, referring to Tbilisi’s position that no diplomatic ties will be restored as far as Moscow keeps its embassies in Tskhinvali and Sokhumi.
He also said that talks are underway to restore regular flights in order not to rely on existing charter flights, which, he said, may also help to reduce price of air tickets.
Abashidze said that ongoing bilateral dialogue with Russia “is fully supported by our western partners.”
He said that like Moscow shares information with Sokhumi and Tskhinvali about this ongoing dialogue, Tbilisi too regularly informs its western partners over these talks.
Abashidze said that at the next meeting with Karasin, scheduled for December, they plan to exchange views about what might be those additional issues, beyond already discussed topics, which should become subject of future negotiations.
Sochi Olympics, ‘Borderisation’
Abashidze said that Georgia’s agreement to participate in the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi “lowers probability” of Russia pointing the finger at Georgia if something goes wrong during the Olympics.
“Our participation reduces to some degree probability of being accused by Russia if in case of a terrorist act there. We all remember how it was happening – if something was happening in the North Caucasus, Russia was immediately pointing the finger at us,” he said.
Asked by UNM lawmakers if he shares PM Ivanishvili’s remarks about a link between ongoing ‘borderisation’, involving installing fences across the breakaway South Ossetian administrative boundary line by the Russian troops, and Russia’s efforts to provide security for the Sochi Olympics, Abashidze responded that he too thinks there is a certain co-relation.
“From the Russian point of view, what is happening there [‘borderisation’] is, to some extent, related to creating some kind of additional security guarantees for the Sochi Olympic Games,” Abashidze said.
He said that there is “excessively” sensitive attitude in the Russian leadership towards the Olympic Games.
“So yes, I can confirm that as it seems what is happening there [referring to the ‘borderisation’ process] is to some extent related to the Sochi Olympics; but they do not say it openly, their formal answer on this question of [‘borderisation’] is the following: ‘Russia recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008, signed multiple agreements and one of them is about providing assistance to these regions in development of their border infrastructure’… Russians also tell us: ‘the Geneva international discussions represent the format for addressing these kind of issues, so let’s talk about it there and if you have some additional question, ask them to the Abkhaz and South Ossetian authorities’.”
He said that engaging in detailed discussion over this issue in frames of his bilateral talks with Karasin may undermine the Geneva process. “And that’s not in our interests,” he added.
“Our Western partners are also telling us that according to their information, Russia is undertaking serious, additional measures on the border areas and not only here, but in other locations as well,” Abashidze said. “So I agree fully with PM’s remarks and that’s what our Western partners are also telling us.”
The question on ‘borderisation’ was raised for number of times during the hearing and not only by UNM lawmakers but also by some MP from the Georgian Dream parliamentary majority group.
Abashidze said that although this issue does not fall within the framework of his ongoing bilateral dialogue with Moscow, he raised this issue with his Russian interlocutor to convey the Georgian government’s serious concern about it.
He said that when he tells the Russian negotiator that ‘borderisation’ process is creating “a very negative background” to ongoing dialogue and also does not correspond to Georgian government’s positive moves in respect of Moscow, the Russian interlocutors respond that ‘borderisation’ is not a reaction to Georgia’s new government’s attitudes.
“They say: ‘This is a result of the 2008 war; borderisation started in 2009 and funds were allocated from the budget for that purpose, followed by signing of agreements with these independent states, so we are helping them with development of the border infrastructure’,” Abashidze said.
He also said that installing of fences was affecting negatively on daily livelihood not only of local Georgian population, but also of Ossetians living beyond those fences. “Ossetians may be even in worse situation after this region becomes encircled with these barbwires,” he said.
Abashidze told lawmakers that restoration of the Georgian-Russian railway link via breakaway Abkhazia has not been raised during his talks with Karasin and it is neither part of this format.
“As far as I can see this issue is not actively discussed in Abkhazia either and as it seems Abkhazians themselves look askance at this issue,” Abashidze said.
He, however, also added that Tbilisi is open for discussion if Russians raise this issue and if they offer some concrete proposal. “But it will happen based on those principles, which are in line with the territorial integrity of Georgia,” Abashidze said.
Implementation of WTO Deal with Russia
Asked by UNM lawmakers whether Georgia’s green light to Russia’s WTO accession in 2011 helped the current government in achieving reopening Russian market for the Georgian products, Abashidze responded that it contributed, but the crucial was change of government in Georgia as a result of last year’s elections.
“Russia could have found many pretexts in order not to let it happen [return of the Georgian products on the Russian market],” Abashidze said.
In November, 2011 Georgia and Russia signed with mediation of Switzerland an agreement laying out in details provisions for monitoring of movement of cargo between the two countries, including also to breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Monitoring, according to the agreement, should be carried out by a “neutral private company.” In exchange Georgia agreed to give its go-ahead to Russia’s WTO membership.
Geneva-based SGS, the world's biggest testing and inspection company, has been selected to carry out this monitoring.
He said “intensive work” is now ongoing to finalize contract with SGS, which has to have two separate contracts – one with Russia and another one with Georgia. “We are approaching the end of this process,” he said.
In parallel, he added, work is ongoing to set up a Joint Committee – a mechanism also envisaged by the November, 2011 agreement, which will be in charge of supervising the implementation of the deal, as well as will be authorized to address possible disputes between the parties. The committee will be made up of representatives from Georgia, Russia and Switzerland, which is acting as a mediator between the two countries after they cut off diplomatic ties following the August, 2008 war.
Georgian and Russian ‘Spies’
UNM lawmakers asked Abashidze if there were or are any talks with Russia about release of Georgian citizens who are serving prison term in Russia on “trumped-up espionage charges,” especially after Georgia’s current authorities released from jail through amnesty those who were convicted on charges related to espionage in favor of Russia after the Parliament included them in the list of “political prisoners.”
Abashidze responded that discussing this issue does not fall in the mandate of his ongoing bilateral dialogue with Russia; he, however, also told lawmakers that although he did not know much about it, he was ready to share his information on the issue with lawmakers behind the closed doors.
Birthday Party in Cyprus
During the hearing, UNM MP Chiora Taktakishvili asked Abashidze if it was true that he traveled to Limassol, Cyprus in June, after his third meeting with Karasin, and celebrated there his birthday in a mansion owned by Yevgeny Primakov, the former Russian prime minister who now has no formal political role.
“I do not want to provide false information about it so that’s why I want to verify it directly with you, because the Georgian Parliament and citizens have the right to know whether the representative for relations with Russia, who should be involved with addressing issues related to removing barbwires, is having a holiday in mansions owned by Russian [former] high-ranking officials and whether or not he benefits from any privileges from Russia,” MP Taktakishvili told Abashidze.
PM’s special envoy responded that he was in Limassol, but not in Primakov’s house. Abashidze said it was a private trip, funded with his own money; he also said that he was in a house owned by his childhood friend Dr. David Ioseliani, a founding director of the Moscow City Center of Interventional Cardioangiology.
Abashidze said that Primakov, who has a mansion nearby, joined them in Ioseliani’s house to celebrate his birthday. Abashidze, who was Georgia’s ambassador to Russia in 2000-2004, said that he knows Primakov, like many other former or current Russian officials, very well.
“David Ioseliani will be celebrating his 70th birthday tomorrow in Moscow. I know this man for fifty years already… but in order not to give rise to questions like this here I cannot go to Moscow even for one day… I think we need more trust between each other,” Abashidze told Taktakishvili.
MP Taktakishvili’s question triggered protest from some GD lawmakers present at the hearing, but Abashidze intervened by saying: “Yes, I understand that when we have such relations between the two countries, questions like this should be asked. But I also request you to have more trust.”
“I sincerely thank you qalbatono [a polite form of addressing women in Georgian] Chiora for asking this question… because now David Ioseliani will probably learn about this conversation and will be less upset about me for not attending his [birthday party],” Abashidze said.