Press Conference with Assistant Secretary Daniel Fried – Georgia Talks

Palais des Nations
Geneva, Switzerland

February 18, 2009

Assistant Secretary Fried: Good afternoon. Thank you for staying for I think now the third in a row press appearance.

The Georgia talks here at Geneva have experienced an intensive day of work, day and a half of work. We had a significant success, agreement on proposals for joint incident prevention and response mechanisms. That is a significant step forward. It’s positive, it’s practical. Agreement on this document was achieved despite the fundamental differences between the parties on the ground about status, but in spite of this we have recorded an achievement.

Now a word of caution about the mechanisms. They are not self-executing documents. Putting them into effect will depend on good will on all sides and we’ll have to see whether the good will that existed today in sufficient quantity to reach this achievement continues, particularly on the ground. So I have to inject a note of caution, but nevertheless, to have come this far is a positive step. It’s a step forward and I welcome it.

The second working group on IDPs and humanitarian issues unfortunately did not reach an agreement on a document that proposed opening up access for humanitarian aid into South Ossetia from both the north and the south. I regret this. It is too bad, frankly, that the second working group could not reach agreement on humanitarian assistance. This was due to one party at the talks blocking consensus. As I said, I find this regrettable.

Security Council Resolution 1866 calls for free humanitarian access, and I don’t think that today’s result in the second working group meets the standard set for us by the Security Council Resolution.

On the other hand, and I don’t want to be completely negative about work in the second working group. There have been some achievements in this group since we last met. Gas is now flowing in the pipeline north from the rest of Georgia into South Ossetia. This is good. The parties have agreed to work on water issues coming from South Ossetia down south into the rest of Georgia. This is good. There’s been some work done in providing more shelters for some of the IDPs in Abkhazia in the Gali District, and that is good.

So it was, I wouldn’t say a triumphant day for peace in the South Caucasus, but it was a day with a step forward, and considering that six months ago we were dealing with a war, I’ll take the good news where I can.

Now we have a very long way to go in restoring security and peace on a long term sustainable basis in Georgia. The situation along the administrative lines, particularly between South Ossetia and the rest of Georgia is unsatisfactory, even dire, with attacks, raids, violence. This is a serious problem and we saw last summer that violence can quickly get out of control.

The situation in South Ossetia proper has been well and tragically documented by groups like Human Rights Watch and OSCE reports. There are reliable reports of massive depopulation of the once rather large town of Akhalgori, from 7,000 to only a couple of hundred residents. We have reliable reports of a tense situation in the Gali District in Abkhazia. Reports of local gangs putting pressure on local people. Eleven Georgian policemen have been killed, some of them with high caliber sniper rifles. In short, the situation there cannot be left on autopilot and things in Georgia, if neglected, tend to get worse.

It was therefore heartening that in the first working group agreement was reached on the subject for the next round of Geneva talks. There was agreement in the group that security, generally understood, including the principles of non use of force, principles accepted by all sides, and questions of how to improve security, how to establish new security mechanisms, will be discussed. That’s good news. I regret that we were unable to come to terms on a date for the next round of Geneva, but we have agreed that this important issue, a critical issue, will be the next one tackled. The issue of non use of force and the issue of security has to be dealt with broadly. There are issues of the militias crossing over from South Ossetia into the rest of Georgia. There are concerns which the European Union and my government have expressed about Russian military forces in Gudauta and Ochamchire.

The Russian government has expressed concerns about what it calls buildup of Georgian military forces. In this context I should refer to the agreement between the Georgian Ministry of Defense and the EU Monitoring Mission in Georgia providing for transparency of and limits on all Georgian military deployments in the region near Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This is a constructive agreement. As far as I know it’s being honored. And the head of the EU Monitoring Mission, Ambassador Haber, was clear that he is satisfied with it.

But that said, there are concerns on all sides about security and all of these concerns on all sides have to be addressed. So I look forward to the next round at Geneva. The Geneva process has functioned more slowly than some would like but it has not tread water or gone in circles. If the will is there on all sides there is the basis to work ahead.

Now I will add something about the context of Geneva in U.S.-Russian relations. As you know, President Obama and the weekend before last Vice President Biden referred to our desire in the United States to press the reset button on U.S.-Russian relations which is a metaphoric way of saying we’re going to try to deal with the areas of overlapping interest constructively, particularly in arms control and START, and also deal with the tough issues like Georgia where we do disagree in a practical and constructive manner. That’s certainly the intention of the U.S. administration. I will be able to report to my leadership that we had a step forward today, and there is the basis for further practical work, even on these tough issues.

So with all of the cautionary notes, all of the problems, all of the regrets that I have that we don’t have a date for the next round and that the second working group didn’t achieve what it could have, nevertheless we’ve taken a step forward and we have the basis to keep moving in the right direction.

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

Question: Since there is no fixed date for a next meeting, do you think that the next opportunity that Russian and U.S. diplomats will have to speak about the issue of Georgia will be when Secretary of State Clinton comes to Geneva and meets with Mr. Lavarov in two weeks time? Will that be a topic then?

Assistant Secretary Fried: I can never predict what ministers will talk about, and it’s dangerous to make such predictions because they’re not ministers for nothing.

Seriously though, we have discussed, obviously the ministers may well discuss Georgia, but in the mean time my counterpart and I, Deputy Minister Grigoriy Karasin, have had regular and productive straightforward contacts. We don’t hesitate to pick up the phone whenever we need to and discuss things. So we don’t have to wait two weeks. If something went wrong or something went right, we would be, I think it’s a fair prediction that we would be on the phone with each other pretty quickly. In addition, Ambassador Beyrle in Moscow has discussed Georgian issues with the Russian Foreign Ministry and others on a pretty regular basis. So this does come up.

We don’t lack for channels. I think with the new American administration there will be ample opportunities.

Question: A follow-up to Frank’s question. Would you say when the Secretary of State meets her counterpart, nuclear disarmament would be the main issue? And can you confirm the date it would be the 6th after the NATO meeting in Brussels that you will be coming here?

Assistant Secretary Fried: I don’t believe, unless it’s happened in the past 48 hours since I’ve left Washington, I don’t believe there’s been a formal announcement, so I won’t make one here. But I am aware, let us say, of the rumors. Some rumors have more basis than others.

With respect to the topics, it’s not at all a secret that the Obama administration intends to work on a follow-on to the START agreement. We’ve had discussions with our Russian colleagues about this. We think there is the basis to do so. There’s certainly the will on both sides to do so.

For those of you who followed U.S.-Russian relations, you may recall the Sochi Document signed by then Presidents Putin and Bush last year. That remains a valid agenda for progress and arms control and START have certainly been confirmed by this American administration as a priority area. So I think it’s fair to say this will come up among other issues.

Question: Could you just elaborate a little bit on what has prevented agreement on the date for the next meeting?

Assistant Secretary Fried: We had a discussion of how quickly we could do this. There was some sentiment that we should hold the next Geneva round within the next two months. Others thought we had a lot of work to do outside of Geneva to advance the decisions we’ve made today, particularly about the conflict prevention and incident management mechanisms. So there was not agreement reached, and I hope that there will be in the next future.

The Geneva process is useful, and of course it was endorsed by the Security Council in Resolution 1866. That resolution encouraged the participants to reach practical results. I think we’ve met that standard today because we do have a practical result. But given the backing of the Security Council I think we should move ahead promptly with this discussion of security and the non-use of force. I don’t see what we’re waiting for.

Question: If I can just get back to the humanitarian issue for a second and the direct connection between what was reached today and the possibility of moving ahead on the humanitarian front.

How does the partial agreement reached today, the elements of communication between the sides, how do you see that contributing down the line to the humanitarian aspect? Particularly regarding the refugees? And do you see a protracted refugee situation occurring because of the disagreements between the sides?

Assistant Secretary Fried: The disagreement in the second working group was about the provision of humanitarian assistance, including from the south. Hopefully progress on the mechanisms will produce a feeling of greater security which will in turn help the South Ossetian authorities to be more comfortable allowing humanitarian assistance to arrive. I don’t understand why they would be unwilling to allow it to arrive. The Security Council resolution calls for the sides to refrain from placing any impediment to humanitarian assistance. So I regret that we were unable to find a way forward, but we have to take this a step at a time, and perhaps the progress we made today in the first working group will unblock the second working group. But we have a lot of work to do, it’s clear.

Question: And the refugee situation, it’s becoming a protracted situation?

Assistant Secretary Fried: Well, I wish I could tell you that I was confident it wouldn’t be, but the situation in South Ossetia, especially causes great concern. There are a limited number of UN monitors in Abkhazia. There are no regular monitors whatsoever going into South Ossetia. There have been visits of the OSCE, but no regular monitoring. The situation there is somewhere between difficult and dire. I do not believe that the conditions exist in the real world on the ground in South Ossetia for the refugees from the recent war to feel secure in going back to their homes, and this is a dreadful situation.

I wish I could say that the situation will improve. I hope it will improve, but it is not a good situation and we need to work on both security and humanitarian issues so the situation doesn’t linger. Things in that part of the world, if they are neglected, tend to get much worse. We’ve seen what happens when they do get worse.

So all of the parties have a responsibility to move ahead as fast as possible to improve the situation on the ground.

Question: On the evidence from the four sessions of talks here and obviously all the evidence you have at your disposal from your embassies in Moscow and Georgia, the stumbling block seems to me to be the Russian refusal to contemplate withdrawing its forces. Do you see any prospect of them changing their mind?

Assistant Secretary Fried: There are two aspects, well several aspects of Russian forces in Georgia. There are of course, the provisions of the ceasefire of August 12th negotiated by President Sarkozy of France. It is our belief that those provisions have not yet been met in full and that Russian forces are in places beyond their positions of August 7th before the war. It is our view, the view of the American government, that the Russian forces should withdraw to the positions held on August 7th.

There is also the problem of the buildup of Russian forces, both air forces at the Gudauta base and the talk about some sort of small naval base or facility in Ochamchire. I do not expect that the Russian forces will fully vacate Georgia, that is South Ossetia and Abkhazia, for a long time. They’ve said as much. So we and the Russians have a fundamental disagreement. That disagreement need not prevent our working together in other areas, and one of the bases that we have approached these talks on is an understanding that we can disagree fundamentally with Russia about the causes of the war, about their recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and nevertheless work together to stabilize the situation, prevent the use of force, and improve the situation on the ground so that refugees can return. Despite the disagreements.

Now that requires both a lot of work, a lot of creativity, because we could easily fall into a shouting match each time we discuss Georgia, but that doesn’t get us anywhere. So although I can register these disagreements, I’m also emphasizing that there is an area of overlapping or potentially overlapping U.S.-Russian interests upon which we can build.

I should say that the Georgian delegation made similar points. They said we have very deep disagreements, but we’re not here to dwell on them, we’re here to make progress. And I think all sides, and I include the Russian delegation also, approach these talks in that spirit sufficiently that we made some substantial progress yesterday and today.

Question: Just a quick follow-up. During the course of these two days have you had a bilateral meeting with your counterpart, Mr. Karasin, to specifically discuss what the U.S. and Russia can do to build up its relations with the new administration naturally in place?

Assistant Secretary Fried: We did not have a formal bilateral agreement, but we talked quite a bit on the margins. We discussed both how we can work together and discussed the possibility of future work together. We’ve enjoyed a good working relationship and a productive one and I expect this will continue.

Thank you very much.

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