State Secretary and Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin’s interview with Kommersant newspaper, January 25, 2018

Thursday, 25 January 2018 17:00

Question: What do you expect from the 2011 Russian-Georgian agreement on customs administration and monitoring of trade in goods? When will it come into effect?

Grigory Karasin: We have high expectations of this agreement. We hope that it will give a powerful impetus to trade in the region. What has been hindering international trade since 2008? Georgia has not recognised the establishment of two independent states on its territory, which has created uncertainty regarding its customs border. The 2011 agreement has clarified this issue. This international treaty sets out the precise geographic coordinates of the sites where the Georgian customs checkpoints will be located. These sites include Kazbegi on the border with Russia, an area south of the Inguri River, beyond which lies the Republic of Abkhazia, and the area near Gori on the border with the Republic of South Ossetia.

Question: Georgia has signed a contract with Switzerland’s SGS on monitoring the work of the Georgian customs authorities at the above checkpoints. When will Russia do the same?

Grigory Karasin: We will do our best to complete the necessary domestic procedures before signing these documents within the next few months, and the agreement will become effective.

Question: Is it right that Armenia will be the main beneficiary of this agreement? In other words, is Moscow doing this primarily at the request of Yerevan?

Grigory Karasin: It is true that Armenia has asked for our assistance, but the case in point concerns a Swiss-mediated bilateral agreement between Russia and Georgia. This agreement does not stipulate any obligations by other countries, such as Abkhazia or South Ossetia.

Question: The armed conflict in South Ossetia, which led to the severance of diplomatic relations between Russia and Georgia, happened nine years ago. Is there a possibility for revitalising dialogue between Moscow and Tbilisi?

Grigory Karasin: First, I would like to say that the gradual revival of Russian-Georgian relations is ongoing. It began after Mikheil Saakashvili’s party lost the parliamentary elections in Georgia in October 2012. At that time, bilateral relations were in a deep crisis. It was precipitated by the consistent anti-Russia policy of the previous government that came to a head when Georgia attacked South Ossetia and Russian peacekeepers there in August 2008.

The new Georgian government stated a desire to resume dialogue with Russia. We responded to this positive signal immediately, because we have always advocated normalisation. The first meeting with the Special Envoy of the Georgian Prime Minister for Relations with Russia, Zurab Abashidze, was held as early as December 2012 in Prague and set the stage for regular contacts. Of course, we were aware of the complexity of this mission, and so we only discussed the revival and strengthening of bilateral relations in the areas where this is possible in the current situation.

It turned out that the window of the possible is quite large. Over the past five years, we have reached practical results in the interests of both countries. Georgian companies have been given access to the Russian market, contacts on practical matters are developing between Russian and Georgian bodies of power, and all restrictions on the issuance of Russian visas to Georgian citizens have been lifted. Our cultural, humanitarian and research ties are developing rapidly.

Another positive element was the participation of the Georgian team in the Sochi Olympics. The normalisation of bilateral relations has helped us secure the release and return home of all Russian citizens who were sentenced to prison terms on trumped up charges during Saakashvili’s rule. We also hope to use available cooperation mechanisms between our law enforcement agencies to secure the extradition from Georgia to Russia of Yusup Lakayev, who shot Russian diplomat Dmitry Vishernev and his wife in Sukhum in September 2013.

Question: You did not mention tourism, which is one of the most promising cooperation areas.

Grigory Karasin: You are absolutely right: this aspect has a tremendous potential. Russian tourists are once again visiting Georgia en masse, providing the Georgian economy with substantial profit, for that matter.

Unfortunately, the Foreign Ministry is forced to notify Russian citizens about major risks incurred during their trips to Georgia.

Tbilisi stubbornly refuses to abolish the discriminatory Occupied Territories Law, passed by the administration of Mikheil Saakashvili, which stipulates criminal liability for vising Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Violating this law carries either a fine of up to $3,000 or a prison term of up to four years. Although this repressive legislation has not been applied to Russian citizens lately, we cannot rule out this possibility.

To be honest, it is very hard to provide full-fledged consular support and, if necessary, to protect the rights of Russian tourists in Georgia at a time when our countries don’t maintain diplomatic relations.    

Question: Can Russia itself initiate the restoration of diplomatic relations?

Grigory Karasin: It was Georgia that severed diplomatic relations. Tbilisi believes that Russia must withdraw its recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as sovereign and independent states, and this is their precondition for restoring relations. But we will never agree to this. Our decision is final. We are expanding allied relations with these two young Caucasus republics. We have a substantial contractual and legal framework stipulating deeper cooperation.

We will respond positively as soon as the Georgian side voices its readiness to reinstate diplomatic relations, with due account for new realities.

Question: You have mentioned the lifting of visa restrictions for Georgian citizens. Will it be possible to abolish visas completely, now that all Russians have been traveling to Georgia visa-free for a long time?

Grigory Karasin: Georgia has abolished visas for people from almost 100 foreign countries, mostly unilaterally. States striving to attract foreign tourists resort to this standard practice. Of course, one should not automatically count on reciprocity in visa regulations in the modern world, since there are greater security risks. It took Georgia years of negotiations and intensive “homework”, including amendments to national legislation, to secure agreement on the visa-free regime for short trips to Schengen Area countries, although Georgia waived visas for European Union citizens in 2006.

This is a complicated issue. But the Russian side has repeatedly noted that it does not rule out the possibility of introducing visa-free travel with Georgia on a reciprocal basis.

Question: When can this happen?

Grigory Karasin: I don’t want to speculate on this issue today. I repeat, we want to reduce all visa restrictions to the greatest possible extent, and we are ready to think about a visa-free regime.  

Question: What prevents you from acting on it?

Grigory Karasin: This mostly includes security considerations that I have already mentioned. I am referring to the effective efforts against terrorism and extremism – in a word, against the evil which sometimes penetrates Russia. We have also discussed these aspects at our meetings with Georgian representatives. If we establish effective contacts in this area, I see no reasons why this couldn’t happen. 

Question: The argument regarding security considerations sounds rather doubtful at a time when Russia has visa-free relations with Central Asian countries.

Grigory Karasin: Don’t forget that these countries are members of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Visa-free travel for individuals is an important aspect of intra-CIS integration processes.

Question: Nevertheless …

Grigory Karasin: Georgian special forces regularly arrest suspected terrorists in the Pankisi Gorge and even in Tbilisi. One such operation was conducted quite recently. Therefore, we cannot overlook these threats. This is a reality, rather than a hypothetic conjecture.

Question: Still, what can encourage Russia to move toward ending visa requirements with Georgia?

Grigory Karasin: We need to think, cooperate and to work together to block all terrorist and extremist channels. If we succeed in this sphere, this will fortify our confidence regarding visa-free travel.

Question: Will Georgian football fans have any problems with attending 2018 FIFA World Cup matches in Russia?

Grigory Karasin: Those who have tickets and Fan IDs can safely go to Russia to cheer for their favourite teams.

Question: Zurab Abashidze has recently complained in an interview that Moscow “doesn’t intend to withdraw its recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia” and that this is the reason for the deadlock in Russian-Georgian political relations. This may mean that Tbilisi hoped the revival of trade, tourism and cultural relations with Georgia would encourage Russia to revise its position on Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Grigory Karasin: I wouldn’t say that our relations are deadlocked. However, it is true that there is a major political obstacle that is hindering the full normalisation of bilateral relations. This obstacle is the stubborn unwillingness of the Georgian authorities to recognise the political realities that developed after August 2008 and to revise their defiant decision to sever diplomatic relations with Russia.

Tbilisi officials like to say that they normalised relations with Russia primarily to encourage Moscow to withdraw its recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and that they are disappointed. Of course, they are playing a double game. As a man who was instructed, alongside Mr Abashidze, by both countries’ leadership to launch a dialogue on normalisation in December 2012, I can tell you that we started by cautioning our Georgian partners against thinking that the resumption of bilateral relations could undermine our interstate cooperation with the independent republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. These are two completely different processes.

We intend to continue working pragmatically towards improving bilateral relations. Russia will go along the normalisation path as far as Tbilisi is prepared to go. We are interested in full resumption of neighbourly relations between Russia and Georgia, but then again, not if this implies the renunciation of landmark decisions regarding Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Question: Tbilisi claims that it wants to reconcile with its Abkhazian and Ossetian brothers. What does Moscow think about this?

Grigory Karasin: It is more important what Sukhum and Tskhinval think about this. As far as I know, they are deeply suspicious, which is not surprising. While pretending to be a friend, the Georgian Foreign Ministry has been making titanic efforts to build a wall around Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Prompted by Georgia, Western countries routinely deny visas to the citizens of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and the United States has prevented Sukhum and Tskhinval representatives from attending meetings at the UN Headquarters so that nothing impeded the adoption of the politically charged and biased resolution on refugees and displaced persons, which Georgia submits every year. Georgian embassies issue angry protest notes even on such minor occasions as a photo exhibition featuring images of South Ossetian landscapes in a European capital. They have prevented a sporting event. The Georgian Ambassador to the UK has recently become aware a modest monument in the Scottish town of Kilmarnock in memory of the Sukhum residents who died in the Abkhazian/Georgian conflict. She demanded that the monument be removed because it was adorned with the Abkhazian flag. It should be said that the local authorities refused to succumb to this paranoia and have preserved the monument.

At the same time, the Georgian authorities promise medical and educational benefits in Georgia and even visa-free travel to Europe for Abkhazians and South Ossetians if they declare themselves to be Georgian citizens. This is self-explanatory.

In this context, I have to mention the absurd concept of “Russian occupation.” Tbilisi does not seem to realise that Abkhazians and South Ossetians feel deeply insulted by this propaganda cliché, which has nothing to do with reality. This concept is evidence of Georgian hubris and disrespect for the citizens of these two republics.

Instead of laying the blame at Moscow’s door, the Georgian authorities should ask themselves what hinders their dialogue with Sukhum and Tskhinval.

Question: What about the talks in Geneva? What do you think about Georgia’s proposal to raise their level?

Grigory Karasin: As Andrei Gromyko used to say, “ten years of talks are better than one day of war.” In this sense the Geneva discussions fully justify themselves. However, because of Georgia’s position, the participants cannot move towards the main goal of these discussions – to ensure reliable security for Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This is how this objective was formulated in the agreements of Dmitry Medvedev and Nicholas Sarkozy. The Georgian delegation has been disrupting for years even the adoption of a joint statement by the participants on the non-use of force. This is no accident considering the consolidation of Georgia’s military potential by NATO and the United States. NATO is building its infrastructure in the country. It is planning to supply or already supplying Tbilisi with the latest multi-million dollar worth weapons systems: French air defence systems and US anti-tank missile systems. The United States is launching a programme to train Georgian servicemen.

Question: But in effect these actions are aimed at smoothing over NATO’s refusal to accept Georgia into NATO, and they do not change much in reality.

Grigory Karasin: We are familiar with this “smoothing” approach. But the Russian Federation is primarily concerned with the real consolidation of the military-political block’s presence on our borders. It openly calls us its rival and opponent and it is not a neighbor but an external player. This is what concerns us in real earnest.

Under the circumstances, the demand for Russian defence cooperation with Abkhazia and South Ossetia is growing and is increasingly justified. We will continue strengthening it to reliably guarantee the peaceful life of these republics.

Question: But, in turn, Russia’s intention to maintain close military-technical cooperation with Abkhazia and South Ossetia raises Tbilisi’s concerns.

Grigory Karasin: Let me repeat: Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Georgia are our neighbours whereas NATO is an external party. The United States is actively building up its presence in Georgia, which is a source of growing concern for us. We want peace and quiet on our borders. This is why we have two military bases in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. They are not to threaten anybody but guarantee that nobody will attack these young Caucasian republics, and if someone dares attack them, they will receive an appropriate response.

As for your question about the statement of the Georgian Prime Minister on his willingness to take part in the discussions… It is the position of the participants that matters rather than their level. But as long as it isn’t constructive or realistic, we cannot expect a breakthrough in Geneva.

Question: Tbilisi is accusing Russia of substantially consolidating the borders of Abkhazia and South Ossetia with Georgia. What can you tell us about this?

Grigory Karasin: Much has been done in the last few years to reduce tensions along Georgia’s border with Abkhazia and South Ossetia and to ensure a normal life for local residents. This is a result of the successful work of the mechanisms on preventing and investigating incidents, which were established during the Geneva discussions. The authorities of the independent republics and Russian frontier guards that are there under bilateral agreements have done much to establish these mechanisms. In 2017, the Georgian-Abkhazian border was crossed by over 1.2 million people and the Georgian-South Ossetian border by about 200,000 people. These are indicative figures. Regrettably, instead of taking part in constructive efforts to get daily life back on track in the border areas, Georgia has focused on staging propaganda shows to justify its thesis about “a new Berlin Wall.” Some of them are simply absurd: a local person has been hired for communication with foreign visitors and video tape recordings and constantly reads the same text.

Summing up, I would like to return to a bitter anniversary in centuries-long Russian-Georgian history – 10 years since Georgia ruptured its diplomatic relations with Russia. I would like to hope that this date will signify a turn for the better. This is possible if the views on the past are duly revised and if the states of the region realise the need to develop equitable and mutually respectful cooperation. There is no reasonable alternative to this. 

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