Georgian PM’s special representatives for relations with Russia, Zurab Abashidze, met on February 26 in Prague with Russian deputy foreign minister, Grigory Karasin, as part of direct bilateral talks ongoing since late 2012 to address, as the both sides say, trade and humanitarian issues.
According to the Georgian diplomat one of the key issues discussed at this meeting was implementation of 2011 agreement on monitoring of trade between the two countries.
Georgia agreed to give its go-ahead to Russia’s WTO membership only after Tbilisi and Moscow signed a Swiss-mediated agreement in November, 2011, envisaging putting in place sophisticated systems for tracking and auditing of cargo passing through breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
The agreement envisages, among other issues, hiring of “neutral private company” to carry out monitoring of cargo movement through three “trade corridors” two of which run in the breakaway regions and the third one on the Zemo Larsi-Kazbegi border crossing point on the undisputed section of Georgia-Russia border.
SGS, the world’s largest inspection, verification, testing and certification company headquartered in Geneva, has been selected for carrying out the monitoring. Georgia and Russia should now sign separate contracts with the company.
Abashidze said after the meeting with Karasin that while Georgia has already completed work on contract, Russia has pledged to do so soon.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement after the meeting, that the two diplomats “exchanged views” on implementation of this agreement and “confirmed mutual desire to complete this work in the near future.”
Karasin said that the issue of possible restoration of railway between Georgia and Russia via Abkhazia was touched upon during the meeting, but no detailed discussion took place. He said that it would be impossible to address this issue in details without participation of the Abkhaz side.
Abashidze said that “there was nothing new about the railway” and the sides have reiterated their positions over the issue.
“We know their [Russians] position that if the Georgian side is interested in restoration of this section of the railway, we should reach out the Abkhaz side and negotiate with them. They have expressed such position previously too. Our response has always been that this a railway linking Georgia and Russia and we are not going to talk about it with Abkhazians,” Abashidze said.
This format of talks, which is under increasing fire from the parliamentary opposition groups in Georgia, is hailed by both Georgian and Russian authorities as an important channel of communication to address concrete “practical” issues in the condition of absence of diplomatic ties between the two countries.
“Dialogue continued on concrete issues of normalization of Georgian-Russian ties on those directions, where progress is possible in the condition of absence of diplomatic relations,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said.
“The sides expressed confidence that despite of existing differences in approaches towards principle political problems, business-like atmosphere of ‘Prague dialogue’ allows solving practical issues of bilateral relations,” it said.
PM Garibashvili told reporters in Brussels on February 26 that dialogue in frames of ‘Abashidze-Karasin format’ has been “quite successful” and “at this stage there are no plans to change” this format.
UNM and Free Democrats parliamentary opposition parties have criticized this format, among others, including for raising the issue of possible restoration of the railway via breakaway Abkhazia, which is opposed by these opposition parties. Officials in Tbilisi say that Georgia is open for discussion of this issue if Russia offers concrete proposals, but on based on the principle of Georgia’s territorial integrity.
Abashidze, who was also criticized by opposition for his recent remarks on NATO, is expected to appear before the parliamentary committee on foreign affairs to brief lawmakers about his talks with Karasin, according to GD MP Zviad Kvatchantiradze, deputy chair of foreign affairs committee.
The Russian Foreign Ministry also said that reopening of the Russian market for the Georgian products was made possible as a result talks in this format, which helped to boost bilateral trade. It noted that Russia became third largest trade partner of Georgia in 2014. But Russia’s current economic woes are also having negative effect on Georgian exports to Russia, which declined to USD 8 million in January, 2015 from USD 21 million in the same period of last year.
After talks with Abashidze, Karasin also said that lifting of visa requirements for the Georgian citizens is not likely until restoration of diplomatic relations between the two countries, which were severed after the August, 2008 war.