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Don’t Shy Away From Progress on the Russia-Georgia Conflict

New Agreement Between Countries on Russia’s WTO Membership Indicates Progress

SOURCE: AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

President Barack Obama shakes hands with Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili during their meeting in the Oval Office of the White House.

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A recent World Trade Organization agreement between Russia and Georgia, key U.S. partners, is a breakthrough in relations between the two countries, and it was partly brought about through U.S. diplomacy. So why isn’t anyone talking about it?

There was ample opportunity to do so when President Barack Obama and Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili met last Monday at the White House. Judging by their post-meeting remarks, President Obama praised Georgia for its institutional reforms, which have set a “model” for countries throughout the neighborhood, and for its “extraordinary contributions” to the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, where Georgia is the second-largest non-NATO contributor of troops (after Australia) and the 11th largest contributor overall.

The presidents also discussed the strengthening of U.S.-Georgia defense cooperation and the importance the United States places on democratic process in Georgia’s upcoming election cycle, which will tilt the country toward a more parliamentary system of governance. The presidents further considered improving trade and investment relations, even floating consideration of a free trade agreement.

All these were certainly important issues for a bilateral U.S.-Georgia meeting. But what was unusual about Obama’s visit with Saakashvili was the silence about the elephant in the room: how to help resolve the conflicts over Abkhazia and South Ossetia that continue to damage Georgian-Russian relations and create hardships and divides within Georgia and its two breakaway autonomies.

This lack of emphasis is especially surprising given that Georgia and Russia recently concluded a breakthrough agreement that could transform the conflict environment for the better: an agreement on Russia’s membership into the World Trade Organization, mediated by Switzerland and helped along by delicate U.S. diplomacy.

U.S. diplomacy helps seal the deal

At the end of last year, the final roadblock to Russian entry into the WTO was Georgia’s insistence that Russia agree to increase transparency of trade across Russia’s borders into Georgia’s breakaway autonomies of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. (WTO rules allow every member the right to veto a country’s membership, and Georgia, as a member, could do so with Russia.) The August 2008 war between Russia and Georgia led to Russian military occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and Moscow’s recognition of the autonomies as independent states. Even before the war, however, Russia controlled both sides of the crossings into Abkhazia and South Ossetia and staunchly refused access to either Georgia or international monitors.

While Russian membership in the WTO has been a priority of the Obama administration’s Russia policy, the administration has also made a point not to pressure Georgia into giving its consent. The administration thus insisted to Moscow that it had to negotiate the conditions for its accession directly with Tbilisi, while it underlined to Tbilisi the importance the United States placed on a successful agreement.

The result is, on paper, a spectacular success. The WTO agreement provides a novel mechanism for monitoring trade between Russia and Georgia across Abkhazia and South Ossetia (as well as at their third, already functioning, land crossing in undisputed territory). Both governments have agreed to report data on trade to the WTO and to affix electronic seals on outbound cargo to facilitate the tracking of goods. They have also agreed to allow a private company to confidentially monitor trade and to recommend, on the basis of that monitoring, the inspection of cargo by either party. Finally, the agreement establishes a mechanism for arbitrating disputes.

Why the WTO agreement matters

The agreement is significant for several reasons.

First, it is a prominent sign that Georgia and Russia, still heavily at odds, are able to find common ground, even in a complex facet of their seemingly intractable dispute. This has required Georgia and Russia to move outside of their former comfort zones.

Georgia, for the first time, is agreeing to institute customs mechanisms, if outsourced to a private firm, at Abkhazia and South Ossetia’s “administrative boundary lines,” their borders with neighboring Georgian regions.

Russia, for the first time, is agreeing to allow foreign monitors to observe and track cross-border activity into its de facto protectorates.

Both countries have achieved this flexibility without crossing major “red lines”: Georgia has not conceded any loss of sovereignty over Abkhazia and South Ossetia, while Russia has not walked back its recognition of the breakaway autonomies as independent states.

While final settlements of the Abkhazian and South Ossetian conflicts cannot be expected any time soon, such an agreement sets a strong precedent for Russia and Georgia to tackle other related thorny issues.

Second, the agreement has the potential to boost Georgia’s trade with Russia, something that will be good for the Georgian economy and for easing Georgian-Russian relations.

Once Georgia’s top trading partner, Russia took unilateral measures to restrict trade even before the August 2008 war, including banning the import of popular Georgian wine and mineral water on ostensibly health-related grounds (a measure WTO rules will compel Russia to revoke). In 2010, Russia at last agreed to reopen both its undisputed border crossing with Georgia and its air connections, largely closed since 2006. The WTO agreement’s formal mechanisms will now facilitate land-based trade between the two countries via Abkhazia and South Ossetia, both of which offer direct routes to urban centers in Russia and Georgia that were heavily used in the past.

Finally, the agreement has the potential to facilitate Georgia’s broken linkages with Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The agreement implies a considerable adjustment in expectations regarding movement across the administrative boundary lines: The South Ossetian ABL, in particular, has been a no-man’s-land for over three years. If trade renews between Russia and Georgia via the breakaway autonomies, the latter will not be sterile “trade corridors.” Their populations—and those of neighboring regions—will play a fundamental role in that trade, as buyers, transporters, and sellers of goods. Once players in vibrant black markets of fuel, flour, produce, cigarettes, and consumer goods (not to mention illicit wares), these populations now will be able to legally renew linkages vital to their livelihoods, in spite of the conflicts that divide them.

The agreement is a success that should be praised

So why is everyone mum on this achievement?

Partly, it is because neither Georgia nor Russia wants to trumpet their cooperation and flexibility. They’d rather emphasize their tough bargaining and the concessions each has forced the other side to make.

The agreement also only has the potential to facilitate trade and, in the long term, conflict resolution. Russia and Georgia might opt not to increase their trade via Abkhazia and South Ossetia, thus failing to take full advantage of the agreement.

Longstanding sensitivities could also continue to limit movement across the administrative boundary lines. The Georgian government will not want implementation of the agreement to overshadow the right of internally displaced persons chased out of Abkhazia (in the 1990s) and South Ossetia (in 2008) to return to their lands and reclaim their property. Abkhazia and South Ossetia authorities will oppose unfettered movement across the lines for fear of increased Georgian influence and the potential weakening of secessionist feelings among their populations.

The agreement could thus end up providing, at best, minimal transparency across Russia’s border. Transparency could be limited to whatever Russia chooses to self-report plus what foreign monitors will be able to independently verify. This would be a more limited accomplishment.

Finally, some may mistakenly believe that the value of the agreement has already been exhausted. According to this view, the purpose of the agreement was to facilitate Russian membership in the WTO without making the Georgians abandon their principles. In this sense, the mission has been accomplished. Whether Russia or Georgia complies with the agreement is of secondary concern. For that matter, were Russia to defect from the agreement, Georgia itself might not be that troubled. It would use Moscow’s noncompliance to demonstrate that, once again, the international community should not expect Russia to play by the rules.

President Obama thus may have had his reasons to avoid publicly heralding the breakthrough WTO agreement when he met with President Saakashvili.

But he still should have done so. The Obama administration had a great stake in the agreement’s success and invested considerable time and energy to secure its passage. It is a precedent for cooperation with Moscow on an issue that many assumed left no room for compromise. The agreement has already contributed to Russian integration into rules-based international society. Ultimately, however, the United States should support the agreement because of its future promise—that it can help propel Georgia, Russia, and the breakaway autonomies toward a future of reconciliation and conflict resolution, something the United States has an interest in bringing about.

Cory Welt is an Adjunct Fellow at the Center for American Progress.

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