Georgian PM’s special representative for relations with Russia, Zurab Abashidze, said Tbilisi seeks direct dialogue with its breakaway regions, but Sokhumi and Tskhinvali are “not free in their choices” and will not act independently without “strong signal” from Russia.
In an interview with the Russian news agency, RIA Novosti, ahead of his planned meeting with Russia’s deputy foreign minister Grigory Karasin in Prague on Thursday, Abashidze also said that Moscow should not be concerned over Georgia’s “cooperation” with NATO, adding that Georgia’s NATO accession “is not on the agenda in a near-term perspective.”
“If Russia really facilitates and motivates direct dialogue between us and Abkhazians, us and Ossetians, we are ready to put aside and not to discuss at all for some time issues related to status, and are ready to launch discussions of concrete issues: humanitarian, economic, business, education, healthcare, water and gas [supplies]. Let’s put aside red lines and start with problems affecting people,” he said.
“We try to build some contacts [with the breakaway regions] through civil society representatives, NGOs, direct contacts with representatives of de facto authorities. But regrettably we see that they are not free in their choices, in their decisions,” Abashidze said. “My experience shows that if they are not motivated, if there is no strong signal from Moscow that there is a need for such a dialogue, they cannot take such a decision independently. Level of dependence on Moscow is too high.”
“If Moscow is really interested in or really decides that it has to facilitate to such a dialogue, we will see and notice it very soon,” Abashidze said, adding that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s remarks, made in December, that direct contacts should be established between Tbilisi and Sokhumi and Tskhinvali, was “in principle right.”
He said that recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia by Russia after the August, 2008 war created “vicious circle” and no way out of it is visible.
On NATO and Russia’s concerns about it, Abashidze said: “We have a good cooperation with NATO and the EU. We do not believe that NATO accession is a perspective of today, tomorrow or day after tomorrow. Such cooperation is good for Georgia to get closer to high standards. The same goes for the EU.”
“We hear often [from Moscow] that our cooperation with NATO poses some kind of threat. We were telling our Russian colleagues that they themselves were cooperating well with NATO; they had some joint structures, carrying out joint trainings, interacting politically very closely over Afghanistan and other countries. Of course there were problems with this cooperation, but up until recently, before drama in Ukraine, this cooperation had been carried out quite successfully. We have also been cooperating in this regard and nothing special has been emerging out of this cooperation,” Abashidze said, adding that there is nothing out of ordinary if Georgia wants to get closer to NATO standards.
“Why does it create a problem to Russia? Is it military infrastructure? There is nothing of this kind at all,” he said.
Asked about planned joint NATO-Georgia training center, Abashidze said: “I understand how it is being perceived by Russia, but I repeat that these concerns are exaggerated. This is a training center. There is a similar one in Sachkhere [Mountain-Training School]… The training center which is being created has no military element.”
When told by an interviewer that plans voiced by previous and current government of Georgia to join NATO causes Moscow’s concerns, Abashidze responded: “Georgia’s NATO accession is not on the agenda in a near-term perspective; everybody knows about it – we know it, and Brussels knows it too. So I think we should try to remove this emotionally charged background. It’s not worth to look for additional reasons for further complicating already difficult relations because of that.”
“At the same time how do you think presence of the Russian military base in 30 kilometers from Tbilisi is perceived in Georgia?.. It’s very hard to live in such reality and it is natural that you try to find a way out, kind of support and security guarantees,” he said. “We are distancing from Russia to the extent Russia itself pushes us away.”
Abashidze said that these issues are not discussed during his meetings with Russian deputy foreign minister Karasin.
He said that the format of bilateral, direct dialogue between Tbilisi and Moscow, launched in late 2012 and led by him and Russian deputy foreign minister Karasin, is an important channel of communication in the absence of diplomatic relations between the two countries in order to address specific humanitarian, economic and trade related issues.
Abashidze, however, also said that Russia’s recent moves, involving signing of treaty on “alliance and strategic partnership” with Sokhumi and planned agreement with Tskhinvali on “alliance and integration” creates a “very negative background”, which “complicates very much” dialogue with Moscow.
He also said that Russia’s recent moves also hinder progress at the Geneva talks, which were launched after the August 2008 war and are co-chaired by EU, UN and OSCE representatives.