The Customs Conundrum ahead of the Geneva Talks


The closer we get to the date of the Karasin-Abashidze meeting in Prague, the more discussions arise surrounding the issue of opening customs check points on the occupied territories. A month had barely passed since the sensational statement made by the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Russia Gregory Karasin in Geneva and customs checkpoints started appearing like mushrooms after rain on the occupied territories. Surprisingly for everyone, Karasin started talking about the responsibility of Georgia and the terms of the Russian-Georgian agreement of 2011. A few days ago, a so-called "special customs point" opened on the River Psou, where before occupation the Russia-Georgian border was situated. Georgia’s second occupied territory also started talking about opening another customs point in the area of Akhalgori-Odzisi territory.

Six years ago, in return for Russia joining the World Trade Organization, an agreement was signed between Georgia and Russia in which the two agreed to the terms of monitoring the customs control at the Russian-Georgian border. Consequently, three trade corridors were designated, two on the occupied territories, and one at the Dariali Gorge. The parties even agreed on having a Swiss company monitor the points.

Now the main problem concerns varied understanding of said trade corridors. The Kremlin believes that the last points of the customs corridors for the respective occupied territories should be Zugdidi and Gori, while the Georgian side thinks that it should be the River Psou and the Roki Tunnel. This is exactly what Karasin accuses the Georgian side of: "You want the Swiss to be allowed to stand near Roki Tunnel and River Psou, but you don’t want to let anyone into Gori and Zugdidi," he said in Geneva. The Georgian side has yet to react to the accusations; however, the de facto leaders of the occupied territories did respond. Khajimba and Bibilov are saying that there is nothing for them in the agreement between Russia and Georgia and demand that the Swiss customs officers stand right at the point where their own so-called customs officers do. Apart from the six-year-old agreement, the Kremlin has also raised the issue of opening a railway through Abkhazia. But, most importantly, the idea was voiced not by the Russian officials, but by the president of neighboring Armenia.

Serzh Sargsyan’s implications about the new railway route came on the tail of the grand opening of the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway. The Armenian side declares that this has lead to their transport isolation, hindering their full involvement in the Eurasian Economic Union. Armenia was unable to attain anything through diplomatic channels, despite the visits of their Prime Minister, and was unable to convince Tbilisi to agree to open the railway route. The unsuccessful negotiations were followed by a message from Yerevan, a “yellow card” for the Kremlin, in response to Russia’s inactivity in terms of the said transport isolation.

In line with the issues of customs and railway on the occupied territories, the Kremlin has also activated the religious front. Last week, the Metropolitan of Volokolamsk, who is in charge of the foreign affairs of the Russian Orthodox Church, visited Tbilisi for a few hours. He is also a member of the Holy Synod and believed by many experts to be one of the most influential figures in the Church after Patriarch Kirill of Moscow himself. The formal purpose of the visit was to invite Ilia II of Georgia to the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the restoration of the Patriarchy in Russia. However, obviously, Metropolitan Hilarion would not have visited Tbilisi only to hand over an invitation, he would most likely have had a more far-reaching plan, confirmed during his meeting with Ilia II. Completely unexpectedly, the guest made a harsh statement against the so-called “Church Separatists of Abkhazia.” “The group, which has conquered the Monastery of New Atoni continues to retain its position and nothing new has happened with regards to it,” he said.

The group working in the New Atoni Monastery obeys the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople rather than Moscow. The so-called “Church Separatists” are supported by the de-facto government of Sokhumi, which is why the Patriarchate of Russia wants to involve the Georgian side in the subject, as Abkhazia is still regarded part of Georgia. For now, the issue of creating an alleged joint action plan against the “Church Separatism” in the New Atoni Monastery has been left open by the Georgian side as Ilia II gave a diplomatic answer to the initiative, saying, “I will travel to Moscow if in good health.” Translating this into the usual language means: “Let’s see what you are capable of. Take steps against the “separatists” yourself, make specific moves and we’ll see....” Apparently, this “we’ll see,” the most rational and effective answer, works well in Georgian-Russian relations in politics, economics and even religion.

Zaza Jgarkava

09 November 2017 17:43