- The Washington Times - Monday, August 11, 2008



Instability in Georgia is mounting. U.S. interests there coincide almost exactly with those of the European Union. It is therefore all the more puzzling that the two have so far been working at cross-purposes to resolve the country’s so-called frozen conflicts.

Although bereft of major energy resources itself, the former Soviet republic of Georgia serves as a strategic corridor through which oil and gas pipelines bring the rich reserves of the Caspian Sea to European and world markets. Georgia also happens to be one of the world’s fastest-reforming democracies, uniquely situated between Russia, Turkey and Iran. According to President Mikhail Saakashvili, who swept to power in Georgia’s 2003 “Rose Revolution,” the country’s number one foreign-policy priority is membership in NATO.

Georgia’s prospects, however, are muddied by the conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. These de facto independent but internationally unrecognized statelets lie only miles from strategic energy routes. Their “frozen” status is perpetuated by a Russian military presence that hijacks the hopes of the independent-minded Abkhaz and frustrates Georgia’s NATO ambitions. And they increasingly threaten not to remain frozen. Fighting is intensifying in South Ossetia, while Russian fighter planes have recently shot down a number of Georgian surveillance drones over Abkhazia.

While Georgia’s NATO membership bid is important for Washington, the United States has so far failed to resolve the greatest obstacle to that reality: the frozen conflicts. This is partly due to Moscow’s rejection of any U.S. role in the region. The Bush administration’s unequivocal backing of Mr. Saakashvili and his policies toward the separatists has not helped. It is notable that after almost six years in which Georgia’s conflicts have grabbed more headlines than ever before, the United States has failed to bring its European partners behind a comprehensive deal for peace in either Abkhazia or South Ossetia.

The Europeans, initially slow to realize Georgia’s strategic importance, last month put forth the first such comprehensive plan for Abkhazia - one that would serve trans-Atlantic interests but would also take into account Georgian, Abkhaz and Russian ones. It envisioned a three-stage process under which confidence-building measures would allow for the gradual return of displaced Georgians to the conflict zone, and German and EU-backed economic aid would set the stage for negotiations on the formal status of Abkhazia.

Russian officials finally shot it down. However, consultations are continuing this month in Berlin to come up with an improved and widely acceptable plan.Washington would do well to put its full diplomatic weight behind the new European efforts. Georgia’s NATO membership depends on progress. Europe (particularly France and Germany) will not lift its objection to Georgia entering NATO unless progress is made on the frozen conflicts. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s visit last month to Georgia was poorly coordinated with European allies. Not only did it overshadow the unveiling of the peace plan for Abkhazia, but it was obvious to the Abkhaz and the Russians that Miss Rice was not singing from the same song sheet as her German colleague. A successful peace plan for Abkhazia will require a unified Western voice.

Any new draft must take into account Abkhaz concerns. The leadership in Sukhumi (the Abkhaz capital) is interested in full, recognized independence. It is just as wary of Russian dominance as it is of reintegration into Georgia and has made quiet attempts to reach out to Western capitals in recent months. The United States and its European allies will not be in a position to take advantage of this openness if they seem biased in favor of Mr. Saakashvili or ignore direct contact with the Abkhaz.

It is for this reason that Europe must take the lead on resolving Georgia’s frozen conflicts. Moscow’s relationship with Europe is less saddled with disputes over missile defense plans, Iran and Zimbabwe. And the Abkhaz leadership has privately signaled interest in direct negotiations with Georgia, with Germany as a broker. For its part, the United States would do well to use its influence with Tbilisi to convince Mr. Saakashvili to fully back the European efforts.

It is clear thatbolstering Georgia’s “Rose Revolution” government only goes so far. The geopolitical realities of the region mean that, if the next U.S. president wants to achieve conflict resolution in Abkhazia and set the stage for progress in South Ossetia and other frozen conflicts in the region, Washington will have to work hand in hand with Europe, rather than on a parallel track.

Borut Grgic is founding director of the Institute for Strategic Studies.



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