Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Are Tbilisi and Moscow Edging Toward Talks?

Paul Goble

Vienna, December 23 – Moscow’s “Kommersant” newspaper reported today that a Georgian activist in the Russian Federation says that President Mikhail Saakashvili has enlisted him to see about developing contacts with Russian officials that might lead to talks concerning a gradual normalization of relations between the two countries.
But given that the Russian government has repeatedly said that it will not talk to Tbilisi as long as Saakashvili is president, that some Georgian officials have rejected the activist’s claims, and that “Kommersant” itself has sometimes published stories that have later turned out to be overstated, it is not entirely clear what to make of this report.
On the one hand, it could be nothing more than self-promotion by Mikhail Khubutia, the head of the Union of Georgians in Russia. But on the other, it could represent a trial balloon or the beginnings of an edging toward talks between the two countries which have not had diplomatic relations since the Russian invasion of Georgia in August.
At the very least, however, the report deserves to be noted. Moreover, it may in fact be an outgrowth, self-initiated or not, of the conversations between Georgian and Russian public figures at the Social Chamber in Moscow a week ago during which each side laid out some of its basic concerns and ideas.
Khubutia told “Kommersant” that he had met with Saakashvili in Munich in November when Tbilisi opened an honorary consulate there, that the two had discussed what could be done to begin conversations with Moscow, and that the Georgian leader had in effect authorized him to explore the possibilities (www.kommersant.ru/doc.aspx?DocsID=1098183&NodesID=5).
The Georgian activist refused to say who on the Russian side were or might be his contacts, given the sensitivity of the issues involved. Meanwhile, however, the Georgian president’s office refused to confirm or deny that Saakashvili had had any conversations with Khubutia of the kind he described, the paper said.
But one Georgian official, Eka Tkeshelashvili, the head of Georgia’s Security Council, was categorical. She told “Kommersant” that he “could not imagine either such a meeting of the president with Khubutia or a conversation with anyone on such a subject.” Indeed, such claims were “an absurdity.”
Of course, such denials by themselves do not prove that Khubutia’s claims are untrue. One would expect on matters as complicated and sensitive as this that those involved in such preliminaries would deny that they were taking place at all. But that of course raises the question as to why Khubutia himself chose to go public.
But if the Khubutia case is at best murky, there has been another indication that some in both Moscow and Tbilisi are interested in finding a way out of the current impasse, with Georgia perhaps particularly interested now that Western governments and especially the European Union have backed away from the tough line they adopted toward Russia at the time of the war.
Last Tuesday, a group of Georgian leaders travelled to Moscow to meet with a group of members of the Russian Social Chamber. The Georgians included Malkhaz Gulashvili, the head of “The Georgian Times” media company, Metropolitan Pyotr, Mamukha Areshidze, the head of the Center for Strategic Research on the Caucasus, Soso Dzhachvliani, a film director, Gori Kavtaradze, an actor and director, and Tato Laskhishvili, the editor of “Free Georgia.”
The Russians were Social Chamber members Maksim Shevchenko, Ara Abramyan, Alla Gerber, Olga Kostina, Nikolay Svanidze, Valery Tishkov, and Archbishop Feofan. In addition, Vyacheslav Kovalenko, the former Russian ambassador to Tbilisi, Valery Khomeriki, a Georgian activist in Russia, as well as other experts, took part (www.ia-centr.ru/expert/3321/).
Among the ideas for confidence building proposed by the Georgians were the elimination of the visa regime, resumption of transportation and communication sides, and cooperation in locating MIAs. The conversations reportedly took place in a businesslike manner, and the two sides said they hoped to meet again after the first of the year.
Whether that will happen and whether the recent visit of the Georgian Catholicos-Patriarch to Moscow on the occasion of the funeral of Moscow Patriarch Aleksii II will lead to official talks is impossible to say, but such meetings may be the only way for the two sides to begin to talk with one another, however difficult the path forward is certain to be.

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