United States Assigns a New Advisor, as South Caucasus Negotiations in Flux
Author: Toghrul Ali
Feb 9, 2023
On January 31, the co-chairs of the Geneva International Discussions (GID) released a press statement announcing that due to “timing issues.” the upcoming round of discussions were postponed to April. The GID are the international negotiations platform launched in 2008 to address the consequences of the Russo-Georgian War, involving officials from the United Nations (UN), the European Union (EU), the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Georgia, Russia, and the self-declared republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The talks, co-chaired by the UN, the EU, and the OSCE, have been postponed several times throughout the last year, due to the disruptions caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, in addition to the Russian demands of relocation from Geneva “to a more neutral place.” Despite these challenges, the latest round of GID talks took place on October 5 in Geneva, with the sides discussing peace and security matters, as well as the humanitarian concerns in the two conflict regions.
The decision of the GID co-chairs to postpone yet another round of negotiations was met with harsh criticism from some of the parties to the talks. Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement describing the explanations provided by the co-chairs for postponing the talks as “artificial” and in line with the Western efforts to block the work of the GID. During his last press conference of 2022, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov claimed that Moscow is “for” the dialogue mechanisms between Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Georgia. However, the Western parties to the negotiations, such as the UN, the EU, the OSCE and the United States, are “making the dialogue format a hostage to the current situation in Ukraine.”
Similarly, de-facto officials from Abkhazia and South Ossetia also harshly denounced the decision of deferral. Inal Ardzinba, the Abkhazian de facto Foreign Minister, went as far as announcing that the delegation of co-chairs of the GID was banned from entering Abkhazia. Such escalations can critically harm the overall negotiations process by creating a stalemate that could potentially endanger the future of the talks. The statements made by the Russian, Abkhazian, and South Ossetian sides display an apparent polarization between them and the “Western” co-chairs, leaving Georgia and the prospects of negotiations increasingly vulnerable.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has undoubtedly affected the dynamics of its relations with Georgia and with the Abkhazian and South Ossetian leadership. Earlier in 2022, the transfer of a vacation complex in Abkhazia to Russia sparked controversy, triggering Abkhazian concerns about the degree of control Moscow possesses over the region. In turn, the de facto South Ossetian leadership attempted to unify with Russia by announcing a referendum in March 2022, before deciding to suspend these plans in late May. Georgia, on the other hand, has found itself in a limbo between the United States, the EU, and Russia. In light of the war, Georgia has hosted a significant number of both Ukrainian and Russian refugees.
Recently, Lavrov’s praise of the Georgian leadership’s “resilience to the unprecedented Western pressure” of joining sanctions against Russia and the hints at possible reopening of direct air travel between Russia and Georgia have caused considerable controversy. In turn, there have been reports in Georgian media of potential sanctions from the United States against Georgian companies that cooperate with Russian counterparts, if and when the direct flights between Georgia and Russia are opened. For Georgia, it has been extremely difficult to carry on a balancing act in response to the war in Ukraine.
The current stalemate in the region’s peace talks comes at a time when the U.S. State Department released a press statement on February 3, announcing Secretary Antony Blinken’s appointment of Louis L. Bono as the new Senior Advisor for Caucasus Negotiations. According to the statement, Bono will work with regional leaders in order to advance the peace process between Armenia and Azerbaijan, as well as to address “Russia’s ongoing occupation of sovereign Georgian territory.” Bono has both bilateral and multilateral diplomatic experience, having previously served as the Acting Representative to the United Nations, as well as the Charge d’Affairs, ad interim, to the Holy See.
With the increased polarization in the region, prospects for ongoing negotiations in the South Caucasus appear to be under threat. With the increasing possibility of spoiler events surrounding Russia and Ukraine and their potential spillover effects to the GID and Armenia-Azerbaijan talks, increased U.S. diplomatic engagement with the region is necessary to prevent further escalation. In this regard, the appointment of Bono as the Senior Advisor for Caucasus Negotiations demonstrates the U.S. commitment for lasting and sustainable peace in the South Caucasus.