In this exclusive interview with Russia Direct, Grigory Karasin, Russian State Secretary and Deputy Foreign Minister, discusses Abkhazia, South Ossetia and relations with Georgia.

Local residents of South Ossetia celebrating the independence of the republic recognized by Russia on August 25, 2008. Photo: Reuters  

On August 26, 2013, the Republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia celebrated the fifth anniversaries of their independence and the establishment of diplomatic relations with Russia. The day before this, Russian President Vladimir Putin paid a working visit to Pitsunda, to which Tbilisi responded with a note of protest, calling the visit “another encroachment on the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Georgia”.

Grigory Karasin, State Secretary and Deputy Foreign Minister, who oversees Russian-Georgian relations, commented on this situation in an exclusive interview with Russia Direct.

Russia Direct: How do you assess the situation in the Caucasus today, five years after Russia’s recognition of the sovereignty of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, given Georgia’s recent note of protest to the working visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin to Pitsunda?

Grigory Karasin: Russia recognized the independence and sovereignty of Abkhazia and South Ossetia on the basis of the free will of the peoples of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. We do not deny that the decision involving the recognition of Sukhumi and Tskhinvali was difficult. Yet, it was made, and now it is irrevocable. It has created new geopolitical realities in the South Caucasus. The visit of the President of the Russian Federation reaffirmed that Russia's recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia will not be revised.

Some people in Georgia still find it psychologically difficult to accept this reality. However, the blame for the status quo should be laid on the elected President Mikheil Saakashvili, who in August 2008 ordered the cold-blooded shooting of Russian peacekeepers, and who unleashed the criminal adventure that led to numerous deaths and injuries among the civilian population.

I am convinced that the results of the parliamentary elections in Georgia, which Saakashvili already lost, and the presidential elections that are coming at the end of October, will only confirm that an unconstructive and provocative policy in regional and international affairs always leads to tragedy and collapse of the individual politician. This is what we are witnessing now.

If I were asked “what road leads to the Temple” with regard to Tbilisi, I would say: “This road is absolutely unequivocal – establishing normal good-neighborly relations between Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia and signing of a non-use of force agreement.”

This should be the beginning. I do not see any other options for the coming years. In my opinion, the notes of protest through Switzerland have become a stock demarche of Tbilisi to the visits of any Russian politician and statesman to these South Caucasus republics.

Grigory Karasin, State Secretary and Deputy Foreign Minister. Photo: AP

RD: How is the post-conflict reconstruction of South Ossetia and Abkhazia progressing?

G.K.: Russia continues to allocate substantial material and financial resources to help these republics. Having recognized the sovereignty of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, we have undertaken the responsibility not only for their safety, but also to a large extent for their successful development as modern democratic, socially and economically prosperous countries. Russian support will still be needed for a certain time: the consequences of war damage and years of blockade by Georgia are too great.

The ultimate aim of our assistance is to have these young economies enter a level of self-sufficiency. The assistance, offered by the Russian Federation and the strategic plans for the social and economic development of these countries have this objective in mind.

Along with ensuring strictly targeted and effective use of Russian aid, allocated for various infrastructure projects, no less, and sometimes even decisive importance, is attributed to the creation of conditions, including legislative, to business growth and the inflow of foreign investment into Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

The main thing is that today, the peaceful existence of these republics is reliably secured by guarantees provided by the Russian Federation. Nothing can prevent their peoples from freely building a future that they want for themselves.

RD: Is there any progress towards the restoration of diplomatic relations with Russia, broken by Georgia five years ago?

G.K.: We have always been supporters of active, good-neighborly relations with Georgia, rejecting Saakashvili’s mindset of “trying to forget about Russia.” After the formation of Bidzina Ivanishvili’s government and the appointment of Zurab Abashidze as a special representative for relations with Russia, at the directive of the President of Russia, we developed contacts with him and maintain relations in those areas where normalization is possible (trade, transport, humanitarian aspects, contacts with people).

I am making this stipulation, because the Georgian leadership is still not ready to restore diplomatic relations with us, which they themselves broke in August 2008 when we recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

This new dialogue was started in December 2012 in Geneva, where I had my first meeting with Zurab Abashidze. Two more meetings were held in Prague in March and June. Today, after half a year, we are seeing specific results of the dialogue. Georgian wine and mineral water have returned to the Russian market, and supplies of agricultural products are expected soon.

The Upper Lars checkpoint at the Russian-Georgian border has begun around-the-clock operations. The relevant departments have begun consultations to resume regular traffic. The humanitarian, cultural, sports and religious ties and contacts between business circles, previously blocked by the atmosphere of Russo-phobia and spy mania, imposed by Saakashvili, have been revived. In Russia, we have significantly expanded the practice of issuing visas to Georgian citizens.

We are considering the possibility of a flexible approach to visas for private trips, including maintaining family and kinship bonds. However, in the absence of diplomatic relations, we cannot speak of abolishment of the visa regime. Our dialogue takes place in an informal manner, with no fixed schedules. We consider this useful, and intend to continue talking.

Russian soldiers sit on a tank as a military column leaves the Georgian town of Gori August 22, 2008. Photo: Reuters

RD: Can we count on cooperation with Georgia to provide for the security of the Olympic Games in Sochi?

G.K.: We were pleased to hear about the decision of the Olympic Committee of Georgia and the Georgian leadership to take part in the Olympic Winter Games in Sochi. This means that our Georgian colleagues will be concerned with various aspects, including safety of athletes and visitors no less than we are.

Such an interaction is possible and it would be helpful. The first step in this direction should be exclusion of any antimonopoly activities, including the rejection of the mass discussion of the “Circassian Genocide,” artificially exaggerated during the reign of Saakashvili.

RD: How do you assess the recent visit of the Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia Ilia II to Moscow?

G.K.: In Russia, people have special feelings for the Georgian Orthodox Church and its Primate, Catholicos – Patriarch Ilia II. Inter-Orthodox relations present an important factor in strengthening the traditional friendship and good-neighborly relations of the two peoples. The dialogue between the two churches can play a very positive role in overcoming the current difficult stage in Russian-Georgian relations. This was confirmed by the contacts between the two Patriarchs in the celebrations of the 1025th anniversary of the Christianization of Kievan Rus.

RD: What are the prospects of Russian-Georgian relations in the light of transformation of Georgia from a presidential to a parliamentary republic and the upcoming presidential elections to be held in the end of October, in which all candidates have declared “the territorial integrity of Georgia,” in terms of non-recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia?

G.K.: We do not have any preferences for one or another political model; this is up to the Georgian people. The main thing for us is that the political processes happening in Georgia would not have adverse effects on our bilateral relations and the situation in the region.

It is important that in last year's parliamentary elections, the people of Georgia showed the “red card” to the aggressive anti-Russian course of Saakashvili. We hope that further political development of Georgia will be guided by common sense and realism; this will strengthen the position of politicians who sincerely seek to establish good relations with the Russian Federation and other countries in the region, including Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

RD: How efficient is the format of Geneva international discussions on security and stability matters in the South Caucasus, with equal participation of Abkhazia, Georgia, South Ossetia, Russia, and the United States in the collective co-presidency of the EU, the UN and the OSCE?

G.K.: This format will turn five on October 15, 2013. This is a small anniversary and an occasion to sum up the initial results. At present, the Geneva meetings are the only international format of direct equitable international dialogue of Abkhazia and South Ossetia with Georgia. They allow for removing of mutual concerns and exchanging views on the situation in the South Caucasus, especially with regard to security issues.

The main outcome of the Geneva talks is the stabilization in the region, which is a good an alternative to the slide down towards confrontation. The stability on the Georgian-Abkhaz and Georgian-South Ossetia borders is also the result of effective cooperation in the protection of the state borders of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, based on the relevant international agreements.

A significant contribution in the framework of the Geneva format is made by the “mechanisms to prevent and respond to incidents”, which became a practical tool for the exchange of operational information, gradual building of confidence and increase of the transparency directly in the border areas.

Alas, the line of the Georgian delegation at the Geneva talks (including members from the new government) does not give grounds for optimism. Instead of constructive preparation of agreements on the non-use of force against the neighboring republics, the Georgian side is trying to use this format to obtain a commitment from Russia not to use force against Georgia.

That is not only absurd, but also cynical, given the internationally recognized fact that it was the Georgian side that unleashed the military conflict in the Caucasus in August 2008, by attacking our peacekeepers and civilians in Tskhinvali. Improvement of the efficiency of the format depends on the constructiveness of the Georgian side, its willingness to address the issue, for which the Geneva discussions were convened – the security of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

The co-chairs, representatives of the EU, the UN and the OSCE have a great responsibility. Their mission is to find an impartial compromise, acceptable to Sukhumi, Tbilisi and Tskhinvali, on the basis of arrangements made by Dmitry Medvedev and Nicolas Sarkozy. So far, they fall short of their target.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. Photo: Reuters

RD: Saakashvili’s adventurism was, to some extent, fueled by the then U.S. Secretary Condoleezza Rice.... Has the approach of the new U.S. administration changed?

G.K.: Not only Condoleezza Rice. The United States and many European Union countries created a permissive environment around the Saakashvili’s regime, as if provoking this, mildly said, incompetent politician, into adventures. Trips, meetings with representatives of the United States, telephone conversations on the eve of the events that happened in August confirm that it is a sense of impunity that encouraged Saakashvili towards this bloody adventure, which ended in Georgia losing about 20 percent of its territory.

Today, they can be worried about it, and talk a lot about it, but history cannot be played backwards. I would like to believe that U.S. politicians have drawn conclusions from what happened in August 2008, and they have become more cautious in dealing with Saakashvili’s team. As far as I understand, the world, including those in Washington, regards the government of Bidzina Ivanishvili as a reasonable alternative.

RD: How real is the interest of the United States, the EU Member States in the settlement of Georgian-Russian relations? In addition, how does this correlate with the continued modernization of the military potential of Georgia by the U.S. and NATO?

G.K.: Of course, we will not find anyone in the international arena, who would openly advocate the preservation of the crisis between Russia and Georgia. All have welcomed the reciprocal steps toward normalization, which were made by the parties after the arrival of Bidzina Ivanishvili.

However, it seems that some politicians in the West regard the positive processes to ease the tensions in Russian-Georgian relations as an opportunity to continue the same policy of attracting Tbilisi into NATO, which, in fact, fueled the anti-Russian policy of Saakashvili, and pushed him to criminal adventures in the region.

The ongoing discussion of Georgia's accession to NATO causes legitimate concerns for us, and political changes in Tbilisi do not give any reason for the softening of our position in this issue. NATO perspective would lead to increased tension in the South Caucasus and would have serious consequences for geopolitical stability in the region.

Besides this, Georgian membership would have a negative impact on the entire range of relations between Russia and the alliance. We hope that NATO members take the most responsible approach to the issue. In relations with Tbilisi, they should focus their efforts on promoting stability and security in the region, including, of course, peaceful coexistence of Georgia with its neighbors, especially with Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

In this regard, we consider the rearmament of Tbilisi unacceptable and extremely dangerous, including the pretext of preparing for NATO operations in Afghanistan; the same applies to the possible storage of weaponry, withdrawn from Afghanistan, in Georgia. The events of August 2008 showed us what happens if there is a surplus of weapons in Georgia. 

RD: Is the possible power scenario in Syria fraught with destabilization in the Caucasus?

G.K.: I would not limit the negative effects, which are possible in the event of the use of military force unauthorized by the UN against Syria, only to the Caucasus. I am sure it would affect the Caucasus, as well as the Near and Middle East; its echoes would be heard around the world. In short, the world is drawing conclusions. Moreover, this is not about the position of Russia, China, Iran and a number of Arab countries.

It is about the heated nature of the debate on these issues in the capitals of Europe. The discussion of the Syrian issue in the House of Commons of the United Kingdom showed that the British parliamentarians had not forgotten the lessons of Iraq. What Tony Blair did ten years ago is unlikely to pass as quietly and smoothly today.