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27 December 2017

Since you became Special Representative of the OSCE CiO for the South Caucasus, what developments have you have seen in the region?

With respect to the aftermath of the 2008 war in Georgia, the main thing to note is that there is a non-confrontational situation or a “negative peace” as a result of the 6-point ceasefire agreement of August 2008. In the Geneva International Discussions, which deal with security arrangements and humanitarian issues, the aim has been to keep the situation stable and calm and try to prevent any new military confrontation on the ground. I think the Geneva talks have helped to achieve that; there is a kind of continuity here.

At the same time we have observed in the past few years a deepening of the divide between the territory under the control of Tbilisi, and its population, and those under the control of the de facto authorities in Sukhumi and Tskhinvali, where the Russian influence is strongly felt, and which are linked to the Russian Federation in many ways, including by so-called treaties, respectively on “alliance and strategic partnership” and on “alliance and integration”. So in a way the dividing line is deepening. There is a divergence of the societies and populations. It is requiring increasingly more effort to keep the situation stable.

The Geneva format rests to a certain extent on ambiguity, and participants attend in their personal capacities since not all of them recognize each other as having any official status. So this is a challenge. We have to bridge the gap, but the gap is getting wider.

As Special Representative for the South Caucasus, your area of responsibility also extends to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. What impact did the April 2016 hostilities on the Line of Contact have on your work?

It’s interesting that for the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict we have some principles about final status on the table, but no real negotiation architecture. There is always a kind of urgency communicated by both sides to do something about implementing those visions and principles, and this leads to escalation and flaring up of fighting. In the Georgian context we don’t have final status discussions or principles, but luckily we do have the Geneva process in order to keep the situation stable. With respect to Nagorno-Karabakh, after the 2016 April violence the little bit of confidence that was there is now challenged, too. The recent meeting of the presidents of Armenia and of Azerbaijan in Geneva is of course important and to some extent encouraging. However, just a bilateral meeting of the presidents will not automatically establish a process of negotiation.

The 2014 OSCE Swiss Chairmanship developed a non-paper on a structured negotiation process with all elements and details of a full-fledged negotiation process; we have presented it repeatedly to succeeding Chairmanships and all the people involved, and maybe one day they will use it. Also, last year, under the German OSCE Chairmanship, we spent quite some time, first of all to develop the idea of strengthening the monitoring mission of the Personal Representative of the Chairperson-in-Office on the Conflict Dealt with by the OSCE Minsk Conference. There was agreement between the presidents in St. Petersburg, but it has not yet been implemented. It is a very small mission monitoring the Line of Contact and state border of Armenia and Azerbaijan; we speak about an increase from six to thirteen international staff. The Austrian Chairmanship has further developed this concept and recently there has been some movement in this question, so the perspectives for an implementation in 2018 appear realistic. At the same time we also drafted a non-paper on a mechanism for investigating ceasefire violations, another confidence-building measure that has yet to be implemented. 

You co-chair the Geneva International Discussions together with representatives of the European Union and the United Nations. What is your approach to moving things forward?

The three co-chairs work very well together, we co-operate closely and at the same time we come from different organizations with different mandates. This set-up helps a lot in the context of the talks. The UN and the OSCE are inclusive organizations – Georgia, Russia and the United States are all members – whereas the EU is a western-based European organization, supporting the interests of Georgia, but trusted as a go-between also by the others, including by Russia.

What we do is basically two things. One is to be as proactive as possible, without being too pushy, in terms of injecting energy into the process and giving the participants the idea that even if they want to stick to the status quo, they can do things together in a non-politicized manner. For instance, we prepared a series of non-papers on best practices dealing with returns of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs), freedom of movement, security and confidence building and threat perception. It is then up to the participants to take these up and use them in the process, with our assistance if they wish.

The second is to be very pragmatic and focus on small steps. We do not expect big breakthroughs or big changes – that is not our mandate, and we have to be very balanced because if we are too active and forward looking we may easily fall into one or the other trap. The talks have two working groups – one on security issues and one on humanitarian issues. For the moment, in the security working group we are focusing on a very simple statement on non-use of force, which would then be the basis for more substantial discussions on security arrangements including security on the ground and confidence building.

In the humanitarian working group we address quite a range of topics. Returns of refugees and IDPs are the most difficult ones, where we have no real progress at the moment. At the same time we have issues like cultural heritage, archives, language, education, freedom of movement and documentation. There are also environmental issues – now we face the serious problem of box tree moths and pests affecting hazelnuts and other plants which are an important source of income for the population on both sides of the dividing line – and here we try to help short and long-term on an expert and technical level. The Austrian Chairmanship also organized a workshop on this matter in Vienna this year, and hopefully the OSCE can contribute to this question further on the basis of its great expertise in the environmental sphere.

Sometimes we organize information sessions on these issues the day before the talks. For example, we invited European experts to speak on multilingual education based on the mother tongue. For the participants these informal sessions are very helpful. It does not mean that they will implement these ideas immediately or easily, but at least they may know better what could and should be done. In the best of cases we are able to link some projects to those issues. For example, UNICEF is active on the ground working with teachers and others in the education sector on the issue of multilingual education.

In June we had an information session on best practices for interaction across dividing lines and mobility, based on the example of Cyprus. It was very interesting to see how crossings can be organized pragmatically, even under difficult conditions, to improve people’s lives. There is a tendency, in the areas dealt with in Geneva, to put up fences and channel crossings through just a few controlled checkpoints. People on both sides are often very much dependent on one another, sometimes connected through family ties, and of course they want to communicate with each other across the dividing line. 

For instance, in the Incident Prevention and Response Mechanism (IPRM) in Ergneti, we discussed the case of a Georgian man, married to an Ossetian, who has a house and shares a small orchard – with apples and some grapes – right near the administrative boundary line (ABL). In fact, the line goes right through the orchard. While working, he was detained in his own orchard. He was taken by Russian Federation border guards and handed over to the de facto authorities in Tskhinvali, as is the usual procedure. People who are detained generally go to prison in Tskhinvali, there is a court case, whereupon they are released, usually within a couple of days – they normally have to pay around 2,000 rubles – and then they are brought back and handed over to the Georgian police. In this case, they brought the man back directly to his orchard. The case was discussed at a meeting of the Incident Prevention and Response Mechanism (IPRM) – the Georgian participants expressed appreciation for the fact that the case had been handled with some leniency.

The Incident Prevention and Response Mechanisms in Ergneti and Gali are useful because they deal with practical issues on the ground. What have been some of the achievements of the Ergneti IPRM during the time that you have co-facilitated its meetings?

The IPRMs are maybe the most useful outcome of the Geneva International Discussions so far. In Ergneti we have had 83 IPRM meetings to date. The representation is not only political but most importantly also on a technical level, and this works quite well. Sometimes we have heated political debates, almost like in the Geneva talks, on the issues of demarcation and delimitation of what in the view of some participants is a border, for instance, and here we do not have a lot of progress. But we have been able to solve some practical problems, for instance water problems. There is the whole issue of irrigation, and here the OSCE has been able to do a lot: for example, to repair the Zonkari dam, work which enhanced both the safety of the local population and the capacity to ensure a supply of water for irrigation. This project and work on other water-related issues has involved good practical co-operation between technical experts from both sides of the dividing line, which is very necessary, for example on the Tiriponi irrigation system, which has segments on both sides of the line. This summer we were confronted with a very hot and dry season which created locally some bad shortages even of drinking water.

Then there is the question of access to land near or across the ABL for local Georgian and Ossetian farmers. This is a lengthy and thorny discussion. Nevertheless, we have witnessed some leniency and flexibility when it comes to individual farmers and cases. The main problem for the local population stems from a confusing duality of two different lines that physically mark some boundaries to them: one is the ABL that, for Tskhinvali and for the Russian Federation border guards, is based on administrative divisions from Soviet times.  The other one is the traditional cadastral line, which stems from times older then the Soviet Union. Some farmers living on the Tbilisi-administered side have registered land plots that go up to the cadastral line which in some segments is north of the ABL, or vice versa:  residents on the northern side of the ABL may have traditionally used land plots lying on the Tbilisi-administered side. We try to look at these cases individually on the ground but also with a rather principled approach, asking the participants to agree on principles of safe use of land at and across the ABL on the one hand and indicating on the spot which land is safe to farm for locals. There is an overarching issue that makes things even more complicated: according to the de facto authorities in Tskhinvali, all the land in territory under their control is owned by the de facto state and not by private farmers. Against this there is also the very basic question of private property and property rights.

Then, there is also the issue of detentions that is related to borderization. At the IPRM participants aim to establish a policy of fewer detentions and – in case people have been detained at the ABL – to get them released immediately. All sides have agreed to use the hotline in order to inform immediately about cases of detention. And indeed the operation of a telephone hotline is perhaps the main achievement of the IPRM. All sides use it quite frequently, more and more so: in August the hotline was activated far more than 200 times. The European Union Monitoring Mission, which is one of the hotline holders, uses this instrument in order to facilitate communication on urgent matters, to arrange technical meetings on the ground or simply to convey messages across the divide.  

What would be typically be notified on the hotline?

Detentions, releases, criminal cases. Ideally also military activities close to the ABL; here we face some problems regarding transparency, but at least the procedure is established. Many other things are worth communicating: seasonal grassfires, for instance. As a matter of fact, the fires are a very traditional method of clearing the land after the harvest, mainly used by small farmers. We will present a proposal before the next season in spring starts. We are going to suggest that one way to avoid the problem would be to teach the farmers other ways to clear their land, maybe give them some assistance with tractors and machinery. It’s an agricultural issue, but at the moment it is being treated exclusively as a security problem by border guards who do not address the root cause of the incidents.   

The issue of missing persons is the subject of co-operative work in confidential mechanisms chaired and facilitated by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). There are about 2,500 missing persons on the ICRC’s list, from the conflicts of the early 1990s up to 2008. The ICRC has recently increased its activity on exhumations and has made quite a few successful identifications. The clarification of the fate of missing persons is a very important humanitarian activity. There are a few famous and rather politicized cases of persons who went missing. In order to support investigation on those special cases OSCE has enlisted an independent expert, Dušan Ignjatović, who is supporting our work. He is allowed to cross the ABL and is well accepted on both sides. He has prepared two substantial reports with a set of recommendations that were shared and discussed with interlocutors in Tbilisi and Tskhinvali. The expert is also in close contact with the family members of missing persons. We hope that all families of missing persons will be able to obtain clarity on the fate of their loved ones.

Is there something the OSCE could do differently?

Of course it would be interesting to have another OSCE mission on the ground, to have more capacity for programming, for assisting with humanitarian access, for monitoring and promoting work in the three OSCE security  dimensions [politico-military, economic and environmental and human] more concretely. We have tried to convince all sides by presenting different models of an OSCE mission for the region. Until now we haven’t succeeded, because to set up a mission is always related to the status issue. The Georgians will say: “yes, we want an OSCE mission, but then in the entire Georgia, including South Ossetia and Abkhazia.” And the Russian Federation will respond: “We are also in favor of an OSCE presence, but then we would need three missions, one for Georgia, one for Abkhazia and one for South Ossetia.” Against this some innovative models elaborated since the OSCE Mission to Georgia had to close in 2009 (e.g. by the Greek and subsequent Chairmanships) are still in the pipeline but far from seeing the light at the end of the pipe. 

What does it take personally to be mediator in these kinds of situations?

On the one hand our work is quite intensive: there is definitely a lot of travelling for consultations in the South Caucasus but also in Moscow, in Vienna and in other capitals. Also there is the responsibility of co-facilitating the IPRM meetings on the ground, generally once a month. There are a lot of different issues and topics to deal with that are part of the mediation process – which makes it very interesting indeed. At the same time we as co-chairs and co-facilitators have to be well aware at all times that the mandate of the Geneva International Discussions is very limited – for example, representing organizations rather than acting in an individual capacity, it is not always possible to use your own experiences and ingenuity as a mediator to invent some things or to propose more productive and problem-related formats in the Geneva context.

Indeed, working in the South Caucasus is very rewarding. There is the diversity of issues and also of people. It is extremely rewarding to collaborate with individual personalities in this context. Of course, there is the well-known beauty of the landscape and in particular of the mountains. All dimensions together make the mission special and at the same time unique. When I started as Swiss Ambassador to Georgia in August 2010, I could not have imagined that things would develop as they did. I am very grateful for such rich and emotional experiences.