Geneva Talks after the 2008 Georgia-Russia War: On the Verge of Collapse?

BY LORETA MATULEVIC

Geneva talks began with the 1954 Geneva Conference, which aimed at a peaceful dialogue and communication for conflict settlement and resolution. The initial disputes that spurred the Conference were rising instability concerns in Asia, such as the Korean war and the troubling clashes between Vietnamese nationalist forces and the French. The Geneva Conference was a vital step in facilitating parties’ combined efforts to address and tackle problems within the region.

Despite the challenging process and being based on the will of the relevant parties, the conference aimed at imposing commitment to not only establish a respectful dialogue, but also to facilitate adherence to reached agreements on peace and stability. In the years since 1954, Geneva started to become a well-established, sophisticated, and developed hub for diplomatic negotiations. Thus, the Geneva Conference was replaced with Geneva International Discussions or, less formally, talks. Currently, Geneva talks play a crucial role in the post-2008 Georgia-Russia agreement settlement, and they, despite difficulties, remain the key mediation process in the region.

The 2008 five-day war in August between Russia and Georgia over the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia added to the already tense, mistrustful nature of their relationships. The four players have continued to clash, which attracted attention of not only local and regional communities, but also the international community. In fact, endless disputes have continued even after the five-day war and the negotiated peace agreement brokered by the EU (with France’s lead). The implementation process for the peace agreement failed to effectively bring parties to an inclusive negotiation table. This led to vague commitments and an increase in the independent international community’s involvement. The region became an easy target for leading world nations to establish control over the process because of the region’s high vulnerability, unrest, and desire for patronage. Even now, Georgia is dependent on the US and, to some extent, the EU’s support, while Abkhazia and South Ossetia rely on Russia’s assistance. As a result, the US and Russia have been engaged in influential power politics, separate from the negotiation table.

To further address these overarching issues and to secure peace and stability, Geneva talks in cooperation with the UN, the OSCE, and the EU took place in October 2008, helping to facilitate the international mediation process between Russia and Georgia. The process was also considered an ascent from the peace agreement negotiated by France, but aimed at achieving a better and stronger agreement. Geneva talks were seen as giving parties an opportunity to directly meet and seek consensus. Currently, the process represents the same pursuits and is as much in practice as it was before, if not more so, despite some clear hurdles.

The challenging beginning of the peace forum has showed that the regional community was and still is of diverse and strong opinions. Instead of successfully moving towards a concrete dispute resolution, the forum settled for small wins, such as simply bringing parties to the table or for Russia agreeing to withdraw military troops from a small Georgian village beyond the South Ossetian administrative border. Moreover, over the years, the forum has also dealt with a variety of issues ranging from strong international players and their ideological and political beliefs, to administrative factors such as Geneva’s peace process format and content itself. It has been highly problematic to successfully secure a smooth mediation process by navigating more powerful players, ensuring inclusiveness and consideration of smaller ones, and bringing parties to the table after their occasional walkouts.

Regarding the format, at the beginning of a peace process the parties had different stances on who was to participate in the talks. Abkhazia and South Ossetia pushed for equal participation, but Georgia opposed as it considered the secessionist regions to be parts of Georgia. Eventually, it was decided that delegates could represent their respective regions, a protocol that has been the practiced negotiation format ever since. The established ‘3+3’ format (Georgia, Russia, the US and the UN, OSCE, and EU) suggests that Russia and the US are acting as patrons for the separatist regions and for Georgia, respectively. Therefore, regional pressures are intensifying because of external power politics between the US and Russia. The content of a peace process has displayed ongoing opposing opinions on, for instance, ‘Agreed Undertakings’ and general further actions, and disagreements have occasionally escalated and resulted in the parties’ walkouts.

In the years since the Geneva talks’ formation, the forum has also failed to decrease Russia’s (as perceived by the West and by Georgia) hegemonic influence in the region and in the UN, where it has a veto right as one of the five Security Council members. Thus, the OSCE and the UN have never extended the mission to South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Meanwhile, the excessively high expectations that originally greeted the envisaged diplomatic negotiation process have given a way to skepticism as the negotiations have gradually become significantly less promising. Talks have tended to outline overly ambitious aims, leading to disappointment when parties fail to reach an agreement or are not even willing to discuss matters in the first place. Such factors hinder the flow of the mediation process and the chances of success in reaching the agreement. Subsequently, parties have begun to doubt the Geneva forum’s ability to secure peace and stability.

Nevertheless, the globally established Geneva peace talks, with no alternatives on offer, play a crucial part in dispute mediation and the negotiation process. Evidently, the forum presents quite a challenging path, but the sole fault of its administrative factors is questionable. The interplay is dependent not only on a flowing format and the content of Geneva talks, but also on the parties’ eagerness to listen, cooperate, and negotiate. The parties, unfortunately, have been very vocal in an adamant and uncompromising way. Thus, power politics has also come into play. The more influential states exercise more control. Furthermore, the regional dispute has become highly internationalized, with increasing EU and US involvement. This may satisfy Georgia, but it does not satisfy Russia. Such internationalization incites tensions even more. In fact, the parties do not refrain from assaults, clashes, and attacks between rounds of Geneva talks. This adds to the rising number of differences and, as a result, the number of difficulties in reaching a feasible agreement. Nonetheless, the lack of alternatives in pursuing mediation process encourages parties to continue the talks, where the international community hopes for the peace settlement one day.

What is next for Geneva talks targeted at the post-2008 Russia-Georgia dispute settlement? Despite the hurdles, the process is a crucial step in maintaining a continuous dialogue and involvement, as well as managing the conflict dynamics. It may have witnessed more challenges than successes, but it still commits the parties to adhere to occasional negotiation rounds, consider and be aware of the interests of others, and – even if slowly – move towards peace and stability.

Image source: wikimedia.org

About the Author 

Loreta Matulevic is an intern with the Armed Conflicts Project at the ERA Institute. 

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the ERA Institute.

This article is produced by the Eurasian Research and Analysis Institute, Inc. (ERA Institute), a public, 501(c)(3) nonprofit institution devoted to studying Eurasian affairs. All views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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