A former German ambassador, Dieter Boden was the leader of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s mission to Georgia from 1995 to 1996. He was also a special envoy of the United Nations Secretary-General to Abkhazia and the leader of the UN observer mission in Georgia from 1999 to 2002.
DW-WORLD.DE: Mr. Boden, you’ve worked for years trying to prevent a new war in the Caucasus region while acting as a mediator for the OSCE. Now that the conflict over the secessionist Georgian province of South Ossetia has escalated into a war, are you surprised?
Dieter Boden: It should come as no surprise. Basically, the situation has grown much worse in recent years, especially after 2004, when the negotiations started to falter. Since then, both sides have armed themselves militarily … which is how we’ve now come to a full-out war.
DW-WORLD.DE: The war began with Georgia’s decision to take back South Ossetia. Why has Georgia done so?
Dieter Boden: It’s debatable who fired the first shot. If a threatening setting develops, however, the situation quickly becomes unpredictable. One can only speculate as to why the war has begun now. But in the Georgian government, several politicians have long been pushing for it. Perhaps someone thought that in the shadows of the Olympic Games they could do anything. But there are also agitators on the Russian side as well.
DW-WORLD.DE: You were head of the UN’s observation mission in Georgia. Why did the existing peace and mediation missions fail?
Dieter Boden: The failure came in the incompatibility of the two positions: Georgia wants to retake its rogue regions, and both South Ossetia and Abkhazia want their independence. There were negotiations and we established some trust-building measures and small business initiatives that were co-financed by the EU. We were given the task of finding a way to guide the areas out of conflict. But both sides lacked patience and consistency throughout the process. Russia also didn’t support the approach enough.
For too long, the West underestimated the potential for conflict within the Caucasus region and didn’t do enough to support these mediation efforts. That’s something I always noticed: We have essentially no backing for our work in the Western capitals.
DW-WORLD.DE: A few weeks ago, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier traveled to Georgia to act as an intermediary. Did his trip come too late?
Dieter Boden: His work was absolutely valued. But he came very late and at a time when negotiations were at a long-term standstill.
DW-WORLD.DE: If you consider your work objectively, what would you say you achieved as a diplomat in Georgia?
Dieter Boden: I was there at a time when one could constructively work on individual projects, like aiding the return of refugees. We also developed a concept for conflict regulations that can still be used today. The political willpower to implement these provisions, however, failed on both ends. Still, I have the feeling already that I’ve failed. When a war breaks out, everything you’ve done up until that point was in vain.
DW-WORLD.DE: What would a plan for settling this conflict look like?
Dieter Boden: For the Abkhazian conflict, there’s already an idea as to what both sides can bring to the table. The basics are there: Georgia wants to remain an uncompromised state. I have proposed such a concept in 2001 that is still valid today — if, as a rule, they want to maintain territorial integrity.
DW-WORLD.DE: Georgia retains its territorial integrity. The secessionist provinces want to splinter off. The positions seem contradictory.
Dieter Boden: These are, however, the starting positions that should still be negotiable. In mediation, one always works with the assumption that there’s a willingness to compromise. It all comes down to the political will of the parties involved as well as on the support of the international community.
Russia also does not have any interest in an instable Georgia. It is not interested in abandoning the principle of territorial integrity. If it did, it would immediately bring the issue of Chechnya as a part of Russia into question. Therefore, there has to be possibilities for compromise.
DW-WORLD.DE: Under what conditions is South Ossetia prepared to remain a part of Georgia?
Dieter Boden: Naturally, that’s something you’d have to ask the Ossetians. This war has created tremendous losses, the scope of which we’re not yet entirely certain, most of all the brutalities committed in the capital, Tskhinvali. Because of the war, everything will become more difficult. But the relationship between Ossetia and Georgia is — at the most basic level — less impacted than the relationship between Georgia and Abkhazia, which I, myself, have repeatedly experienced. You might suppose that a solution is possible by giving the region wider autonomy, and not just some folkloric autonomy, as back in Soviet times, but autonomy with political rights. There’s a model for that, and people have to discuss it seriously.
DW-WORLD.DE: What role can international organizations like the UN or OSCE play in settling the conflict?
Dieter Boden: Both of these organizations have enormous responsibilities. The OSCE has a set mandate for South Ossetia and the UN has one for Abkhazia, both of which, in my opinion, need to be maintained. But these organizations have to be adequately supported.
DW-WORLD.DE: The UN is impotent in this situation, however, because the US supports Georgia’s side on the UN Security Council and Russia supports South Ossetia.
Dieter Boden: I know this confrontation well. I was at the Security Council quite a few times to discuss the Abkhazia conflict. Because of the military confrontation, it took on a very sharp turn. But neither Russia nor the US was interested in a bigger confrontation. They have enough other problems that they need to work together on — like Iran and terrorism. It’s my feeling that we haven’t yet heard the last word in the Security Council.
DW-WORLD.DE: In the course of all this, Georgia is losing the war. Will they now split from South Ossetia? Perhaps from Abkhazia as well?
Dieter Boden: I’m afraid that Russia, with its military might, has used this situation to create the facts on the ground to improve its position. South Ossetia would militarily be more secure and Abkhazia most likely would too. That wouldn’t bring anything better in the future, but would rather increase anti-Russian resentment among the Georgian people. It can only get worse, which is why a laying down of weapons has top priority.
DW-WORLD.DE: Georgia’s aspires to join NATO. Could this war have been prevented if NATO had included Georgia in the April 2008 summit as the US wanted to do?
Dieter Boden: I have serious doubts about that. Georgia wouldn’t have been brought in as a member of NATO at lightning speed. To be a full NATO member Georgia would have needed a number of years. Besides that, NATO doesn’t take in nations that have standing conflicts, and with good reason. We’re all held hostage by article 15 of the NATO charter, which says that when one member is assaulted, all other members are obliged to assist. Imagining Georgia in that situation sends chills down your spine.