Georgian Minister, Seeking EU Support, Warns War With Russia 'Very Close'
Georgia is warning Western governments that there is a real risk of war with Russia unless Moscow is persuaded to reverse recent decisions to strengthen ties with separatist Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Georgia's minister of reintegration, Temor Iakobashvili, was in Brussels on May 5-6 to meet with European Union and NATO officials before heading to Vienna for talks with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
Georgia is asking the EU, NATO, and other international organizations to put pressure on Russia to reverse its decisions to forge closer ties with Georgia's separatist regions and double its peacekeeping contingent in Abkhazia.
Speaking to journalists in Brussels, Iakobashvili also said he is asking the EU to increase its involvement in the conflict zones and take a tougher stance on Russia. He said Tbilisi believes Russia's moves -- ranging from the troop buildup to lifting trade sanctions against Sukhumi and Tskhinvali -- signal an intention to "annex" Abkhazia and South Ossetia:
"We see clear evidence of attempts by our northern neighbor to grab land [from] a neighboring country, and we see attempts [by the] Russian Federation to annex territories of Georgia, namely Abkhazia and South Ossetia," he said.
Iakobashvili rejected Russian accusations that Georgia is building up troop levels in areas adjacent to separatist Abkhazian territory. He also said that reports of the destruction of several Georgian unmanned aerial drones subsequent to the confirmed downing of one on April 20 are "Russian propaganda." Tbilisi says the first drone was shot down by a Russian plane, although Russia denies the claim.
Iakobashvili said Russian pressure on Georgia had brought the prospect of war "very close."
"We literally have to avert war," he said. "We literally have to avert because we see what is happening on the ground, and we have all indications that Russia is trying to provoke Georgia to start a war. That's very clear."
The Georgian minister said he was in Brussels to influence EU ambassadors -- the people who "craft" the EU's decisions behind the scenes. He said Georgia is looking to develop a "joint policy" with the EU aimed at defusing the crisis.
In the short term, Georgia wants the EU to send a high-level "troika" mission to Tbilisi and agree on an "assessment mechanism" providing the bloc with the criteria and means for independently verifying claims of military activities in Georgia.
Verification Left To UN
Speaking on condition of anonymity, an EU diplomat told RFE/RL an EU delegation could be dispatched to Tbilisi as soon as May 8. There's sympathy within the EU for the Georgian request for an "assessment mechanism," but a number of member states feel verification of claims about military activity should be left to the United Nations -- under whose aegis Russian peacekeepers currently operate in Abkhazia.
Iakobashvili said Georgia also wants the EU to back a "new peace process" based on proposals laid out by President Mikheil Saakashvili last month. Saakashvili's offer of wide-ranging autonomy was rebuffed by the Abkhaz leadership, however.
Georgia would like the EU to send border monitors and a police force to Abkhazia and South Ossetia. However, this long-standing Georgian ambition has been repeatedly thwarted in the past by resistance led by France and Germany, the two countries also seen as the main hurdles in Tbilisi's NATO bid.
Iakobashvili said the current negotiating format for Abkhazia has been dominated by Russia to the point of being "buried." Georgia is asking the EU to become involved in establishing a new format -- but, according to officials in Brussels, there is little hope of immediate success.
'Very Formidable Adversary'
Iakobashvili also met experts from various international think tanks on May 6, including Svante Cornell, the research director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and Silk Road studies program at Johns Hopkins University in the United States. Cornell told RFE/RL that Georgia is being advised to tread carefully. The EU and the United States, said Cornell, may not be in a position to match Russia move for move.
"The people who understand what's going on, both in Europe and America, they feel that this is unacceptable, that the Russians have basically reached a level where it's hard for us -- even if we would want to -- to allow them to have a monopoly over negotiations and over peacekeeping," Cornell said. "But at the same time, there is a sense that you're really up against a very formidable adversary. We are not united. We don't know what the commitment, resources, or attention available to European or American policymakers is. And in that sense, if we do something, what if the Russians raise the stakes and we're left unable or unwilling to respond to that? We might have worsened the situation, compared to not doing anything."
Iakobashvili said after his EU talks that he feels for the first time that officials in Brussels understand that "Russia is not an honest broker" in Georgia's frozen conflicts. But he warned this epiphany alone is not enough, and that action must follow. He said Russia has designs to redraw "the borders of Eastern Europe," which do not end with Georgia, but will affect Ukraine and the Baltic States -- and by extension also the EU's own energy, neighborhood, and foreign and security policies.