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Press Conference by Daniel Fried – Georgia Talks
December 18, 2008

Daniel Fried

Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs

Press Conference

Palais des Nations

Assistant Secretary Fried: Good afternoon. I believe you have already heard from the co-chairs and you have heard from Minister Karasin, so I will not repeat what they said, but I will first give thanks to the co-chairs and appreciation especially to Ambassador Pierre Morel who has done and did yesterday and today an excellent job of making as much progress as could have been made.

It was an intensive two-day session. We got close to an important agreement on a mechanism for settlement and investigation of disputes, and I regret that we did not achieve this agreement. We did get close.

Let me say that the background of these talks is still a very difficult and even dangerous situation on the ground in Georgia. Incidents including shooting incidents occur almost daily. Some of these incidents, I’m sad to say, involve deaths. An OSCE vehicle was fired upon just last week.

Under these very difficult circumstances, the participants in the Geneva talks yesterday and today sought to focus our work on a mechanism to deal with the incidents that do occur. We all agreed to avoid debate about the hard and at this stage unresolveable political issues having to do with South Ossetia and Abkhazia and the, in our view, unfortunate Russian recognition of their independence — a step that the United States and Europe has condemned. We all agreed to avoid these issues and focus instead on practical steps forward. It was in that spirit that we made considerable progress toward such a mechanism. We did get close.

At the end of the discussions Ambassador Morel made a fervent and very persuasive plea for all the delegations present to swallow hard, to put aside the various frustrations, and agree to what was agreeable and to the text on the table.

The Georgian delegation pointed out that the text was less than they had hoped for, but nevertheless it was sufficient for them to agree to it.

The Americans, and I’m speaking for myself and my delegation, agreed that the text outlining the dispute resolution investigation mechanism could have been much stronger, but it was much better than nothing. It was a solid piece of work. We also agreed.

While I cannot speak for Minister Karasin, I had the strong sense that the Russians also wanted an agreement and would have been prepared to accept this text.

The South Ossetians and the Abkhaz, for their own part, were unable to accept it and so the text with two substantive issues outstanding out of at least ten, perhaps twelve as of this morning, stands but as an incomplete and therefore not agreed document.

As Pierre Morel and Ambassador Verbeke said earlier today, the mechanism outlined has a number of practical advantages, and there was a strong sense in the room that we need to try to put these to work as best we can.

As I said, the situation on the ground is dangerous. The EU monitoring mission is doing the best it can. But the lack of access on a regular basis to South Ossetia, and only very limited international access to Abkhazia are problems that we need to address, and we also need to address the problem of ease of communications on the ground between the relevant authorities.

We will continue to work to improve the situation on the ground and improve coordination between the various actors on the ground. Certainly despite these serious disagreements we have with the Russian Federation over the origins of the conflict and recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the United States will work with Russia especially to try to help stabilize the situation, working with the EU, the UN, the OSCE and of course the government of Georgia so that incidents are minimized and the danger of increased and even out of control violence is put behind us.

I want to thank again the co-chairs for organizing the work of the past two days, express my thanks to them and to all the participants. Although we did not achieve the agreement, we did make some progress.

The Geneva Process remains the sole venue where all the parties to the conflict get together and we worked in a practical way over the last two days so this process has proved its worth.

With that, I’ll be happy to take some questions.

Question: I have a question. Actually today a classified report from the Pentagon was saying that within the Georgian army there was a great problem of mismanagement. Does this problem of mismanagement have a big impact on the ground? And does it make a resolution of the problems more difficult?

Assistant Secretary Fried: I read the article that appeared in the New York Times. Certainly the Georgian military has made great progress in the past few years, but many of the problems identified in that article are real and much progress remains to be made.

As you know, my government believes that the causes of the conflict, of the Russo-Georgian conflict, were complicated. We have always said it was a mistake for Georgia to move into Tskhinvali on the night of August 7th/8th, but there had been severe provocations, attacks, violent acts, both by South Ossetian forces and over the past year even involving Russian forces.

But today the Georgian military has not been, to my knowledge, involved in the incidents that I was referring to earlier.

The incidents are numerous but many of them seem to involve irregular forces from north of the administrative line in South Ossetia that come across the border and raid and shoot.

There are a lot of people with guns who aren’t particularly careful how they use them. There was agreement by all, all the representatives, including the Russians, Georgians, Abkhaz, South Ossetian representatives that the current situation is not satisfactory. So it was on that basis that all of us were able to make the progress that was made.

Question: I want to be really clear about where the agreement fell down. There were two issues. Was it over the status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia? Or could you clarify that issue?

Also, one of the chairmen mentioned that there were preliminary talks about freedom of movement on crossing points. Does that mean Georgians and South Ossetians going back and forth? You speak in forked tongues so it’s a little hard to understand some of this. Not, you, but — [Laughter].

Assistant Secretary Fried: There was a discussion not so much of freedom of movement but the need to increase the security at the crossing points. And the lack of regular recognized crossing points and a lack of security at these points can give rise to all kinds of problems. So there was a brief discussion of the need to tackle this issue.

But there was also general agreement that the first thing we need to do is put in place mechanisms to improve security on the ground and deal with incidents that do occur. So that’s where the bulk of the work was concentrated.

There were issues of – Well, status issues constitute some of the underlying problems we deal with all the time. These issues kept cropping up.

There are also issues of access and visits to sites of incidents. There was a great deal of sensitivity expressed, especially by the South Ossetians and the Abkhaz.

Now the Georgians said throughout the discussions that they welcomed robust and frequent international visits, including in cases of, as they put it, accusations. As the Georgians put it repeatedly throughout yesterday and today, if there are concerns about anything Georgia is doing there needs to be prompt access by international observers to investigate these and help build confidence. So they did not seem as sensitive to outside observers.

The South Ossetians and the Abkhaz seemed much more sensitive. Had there been more time I suspect that a formula might have been worked out. These differences did not seem to me ultimately unbridgeable, they just were unbridgeable today. And they were sensitive. And some delegations, some representatives made the point that after all, emotions are running pretty deep and it will take time to work out all these issues, or time to make progress on any of them.

So I’m giving you a sense. I don’t know whether I’m speaking in tongues, but I’m trying to be as straightforward as I can.

Question: Sir, could you elaborate a little bit more about what you’ve just told about those irregular forces involved in the recent incidents. This sounds quite serious. First, in terms of number. How many of them are there? Secondly, in terms of ambition. Are they free to act as they want, or are they playing a kind of specific role?

Assistant Secretary Fried: That is a very good question. If I could give you a precise answer the problem would be half solved. If we knew precisely what the situation was, if we knew exactly what kind of groups were doing what and what their intentions were, solving the problem on the ground would be a lot easier.

I’m not on the ground. I was in Georgia about a month ago so my first-hand information is already a month old. But the reports we have are that in many cases there are irregular armed formations, or gangs, that cross the border and are responsible for a lot of the shooting.

There are, of course, accusations that there may be some official involvement in some of these groups. I don’t know the answer. I can’t speak to every incident. But the incidents are a problem, and one of the problems we’ve noticed all along is that the potential for the situation on the ground to deteriorate is high and deterioration can be very swift. But the diplomatic progress of solving problems, setting up structures to manage them, has been relatively slow. It’s this gap that causes all of the concern by many parties.

Question: If I can just focus on the issue of some of these border crossings as well, my understanding right now, and correct me if I’m wrong, is that there’s only so far that you can go without engaging with the Abkhazian and South Ossetian authorities, which I guess you are already doing as part of these negotiations.

Where do you think the line will be drawn in the inability to make any more progress without solving this very tense diplomatic issue of the independence of these regions?

Assistant Secretary Fried: No country in the world other than Nicaragua has joined Russia in recognizing Abkhaz and South Ossetian independence and it’s been now quite a while. So the issue is not resolving the issue of their status, because Europe, the United States, the G7 Foreign Ministers, have all condemned Russia’s recognition. However, in a practical way we are, after all, here in Geneva as you said, sitting down at the table with representatives from South Ossetia and Abkhazia. We all perfectly well recognize that we have to deal on the ground with people who are in control on the ground, and it’s important to be practical and not let every question fall on issues of principle while maintaining our principles.

And I have to say that the Georgians also have come to Geneva in that practical spirit. We have to be practical. We’re prepared to be practical. But practicality does not mean giving away points that are points of deep principle, and we won’t do so. Still there is ample room for arrangements to increase security. The fact is, we cannot and should not hold all progress hostage, including progress to stabilize the situation for resolution of harder issues. It will be a very long time before the issues of the status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia are resolved.

In the mean time we have to do what we must and what we can do to stabilize the situation and prevent further conflict. Now that often involves either a constructive ambiguity or difficult formulas, but that’s what people like me are paid to do. That is, find a way to get done what needs to be done. That is certainly the practical spirit in which we approached these talks and will continue to approach them.

Question: Minister Karasin has just told us that Russian troops occupy and will continue to occupy their present positions out of the conviction, the Russian conviction, that this constitutes the best guarantee for the security of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This to me, sir, doesn’t seem to leave much room for maneuver, or does it? Thank you.

Assistant Secretary Fried: I’ve already spoken to the disagreement between Russia on one hand and the United States and Europe on the other with respect to its decision to recognize these two territories and the concern we have about the buildup of Russian military forces in these two territories which we do not consider to be consistent with the ceasefire of August 12th. That said, we are nevertheless prepared to work with Russia to help stabilize the situation.

Russia does have responsibilities, having put forces in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, to see to it that the situation is indeed stabilized. And it is, well, the Russians can speak for themselves how easy it is in their current situation, but we look to them to play a helpful role. As I said, despite the disagreements in principle we have, we’re willing to work with Russia in a practical way. It seems to me that is the only practical way forward.

The Georgian government approach these talks in the same spirit. It was this sense of practicality that enabled us to have two days of talks. In the room were Georgians, Russians, South Ossetians, Abkhaz, the Americans, and the international co-chairs, and no one was walking out. Everyone was working forward. No one was engaged in that kind of — No one engaged in antics.

So there is a practical spirit which still prevails despite the very difficult issues.

Thank you for your time.