Christa Lörcher, the Parliamentary Assembly rapporteur on Georgia, totally rejects military action in the Pankisi Gorge, where tensions are escalating. Lörcher, an independent German MP and a member of the Parliamentary Assembly Socialist Group, calls on Russia and the government in Tbilissi to adopt non-military solutions. Chechen rebels using the Pankisi Gorge as a base must, she says, be brought under control by constitutional means. Her report, which the Assembly is debating on Wednesday, proposes that the Council of Europe send a special envoy to Tbilissi to help find peaceful answers to Georgia’s internal problems. This includes tackling the conflicts with minorities in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Question : Tensions between Georgia and Russia in the Pankisi Gorge are worsening because Russia suspects the presence there of Chechen rebels. Although there is no armed conflict in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, no solution to the problems there is in sight. Can the Council of Europe exert any influence in a fraught situation?
Christa Lörcher: When Georgia was admitted to the Council of Europe in 1989 there were great hopes that admission would speed up solutions to the various conflicts. Unfortunately the authorities have made little use of the opportunity. The Council accordingly decided a year ago to extend monitoring of Georgia. The Council of Europe is looking to the latest report, to be presented on Wednesday, to step up the pressure for peaceful settlement of the internal problems. I am confident our initiative will have an effect. Ultimately Tbilissi has little choice but to co-operate with international organisations. Naturally it is always difficult getting constructive dialogue going again but the southern Caucasus is a powder barrel and the Council of Europe cannot simply stand on the sidelines.
Question. : To avoid an armed showdown in the Pankisi Gorge what messages are you sending Moscow, Tbilissi and Washington? Or is an armed confrontation inevitable?
Christa Lörcher: At the moment there are Georgian troops, together with their American instructors, and Russian units in the Pankisi Gorge to conduct operations against the Chechen rebels and restore order, as they put it. But in a country based on the rule of law that is a police matter, not an army one. Our report’s most important message is that the protagonists must renounce military action. As it is, it is completely unacceptable for a Council of Europe member state to be intervening militarily in another Council of Europe country, which is what Moscow has threatened Tbilissi with. The situation in the Pankisi Gorge can only be defused by bringing the Chechen rebels under control by methods consistent with the rule of law.
Question : According to your report the status quo in Abkhazia and South Ossetia is liable to continue. Do we have to put up with a situation of latent conflict or do you see any prospect of a solution?
Christa Lörcher: There is no question of putting up with the situation. Violence can flare up at any time and hurt both the civilian population and the region as a whole. In South Ossetia there are huge economic interests at stake, and smuggled drugs and arms also transit through the area. Georgia has a responsibility to bring all of this under control. Plainly the Council of Europe and Georgia need to be taking join action to counter separatist tendencies in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Equally Tbilissi needs to grant minorities self-administration. But it has to be said in all honesty that there are interests which it would suit to see the present situation continuing. That is something the Council of Europe must not tolerate.
Question. : The Council of Europe has been prominent in Chechnya. Strasbourg delegations are active there on behalf of human rights, and the negotiations involving Russians, Chechens and Parliamentary Assembly representatives are the sole discussion contact, internationally, between the belligerents. Is this commitment in Chechnya a possible model for Council of Europe activities in Georgia?
Christa Lörcher: I very much hope so. We want to get regular contact going between the protagonists. We are also looking to Russia, which is a key player in Georgia, to show willing. I would very much like to see the Council of Europe’s Chechnya delegation, led by Lord Judd, taking an interest in the Pankisi Gorge situation too. In any event we have to do something. Moves for a settlement can’t be postponed for ever.
Question : There are Russian criticisms that your report on Georgia insufficiently reflects the Moscow position. What is your reaction to that?
Christa Lörcher: It isn’t true. Disagreements are mainly between Russian and Georgian members of the Political Affairs Committee. The report is a realistic assessment of the conflicts in Georgia. There is an important point about tensions in the Pankisi Gorge that cannot be glossed over: it is unacceptable to the Council of Europe for a country to be militarily intervening in another state and offering self-defence as a justification. Apart from the Russian delegates, all the members of the Political Affairs Committee subscribe to that position. I would like to stress, though, that constructive solutions need to involve all sides.
Question: You are in favour of opening a Council of Europe office in Tbilissi. What, concretely, would an office in Tbilissi be doing?
Christa Lörcher: The Council of Europe already has a small information office in Tbilissi but that office doesn’t have any political function. The Parliamentary Assembly, and this is the second central message of our report, is keen to send a special envoy to Georgia. The envoy would be a kind of mediator, helping to stabilise the political situation in the country and above all bringing the opposing camps to the table. The envoy would also pave the way for economic contact: the Georgian economy is in dire straits and economic aid and outside investment are urgently needed, in the interests of political stability as well as of the population.