Antti Turunen, the UN Representative to the Geneva International Discussions (GID), is stepping down at the end of 2017 from the role he has held for the last seven years. The GID were launched in the Swiss city in 2008 to address the consequences of the war in Georgia that year. In New York this past week, Mr Turunen sat down with Politically Speaking to shed some light on a little-known but critical mediation process in Europe.
Politically Speaking: You are ending your tenure as the UN Representative to the GID at the end of the year. What kind of assessment can you make from your seven years in the post?
Antti Turunen: I can say that the Geneva discussions have become a regular feature, regular process of discussing the aftermath of the 2008 war in Georgia. It’s, of course a fragile process, but anyway, participants meet four times a year in Geneva. That would include Georgia; then you have the two break-away entities -- Abkhazia and South Ossetia -- and then you have Russia, the United States and the three co-chairing organizations: UN, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the European Union (EU). And we also have regular meetings of the two joint incident prevention and response mechanisms (IPRM) – one for the Abkhaz-Georgian context and another one for the South Ossetian-Georgian context. And they meet on a monthly basis, discussing incidents between police and authorities in charge of public order and security on the ground. And then you have a hotline working almost on daily basis, which has become very useful and effective. And then you also have an EU Monitoring Mission on the ground, albeit on the other side of the lines of control. So, these elements have now been consolidated and this has led to the situation where you can say that we have prevented escalation of the conflict, or a reverse towards a situation of political or security tension which could have meant a new outbreak of the violence. I think the fact that we have this regular possibility to discuss and exchange views has helped to stabilize the situation on the ground.
The number of serious security incidents has gone down substantially in the last few years. Has the Geneva process played a role in that?
When I joined the Geneva international discussions as a co-chair back in 2010, there were quite a lot of incidents, which led to killings of police officers, especially on the Abkhaz-controlled territory, as well some kidnapping cases and so on which we have had to tackle in the IPRM framework in Gali, which I’m chairing, and then also in the Geneva framework. Since 2012, the situation has calmed down very much and we don’t have serious security-related incidents. I think that respective authorities should be commended to have really addressed the question which has led to the calm and stable situation. I should mention that there was a pause in the IPRM process between 2012 and 2016 because of procedural questions and some political issues we had to sort out. It was one of these “rescue operations”, so to say, a lot of effort from my side and my mission’s side went into trying to reestablish the incident reporting mechanism. It happened in 2016. And in that connection, there was one killing which is still on the agenda of the IPRM, when an Abkhaz “border guard” went to the other side and killed a Georgian unarmed civilian. And this is still on the agenda, it’s still an unsolved question, but that didn’t cause a break-up of the process or any serious concerns that would directly relate to the political or security context.
What caused the pause in the mechanism between 2012 and 2016?
There was a question about the participation: who from Georgian and Abkhaz sides are participating in the process. That was disputed. And there were some issues related to certain statements by some people, and so on. So that was an issue. Re-building the confidence, so to say, between parties, get them back to the table. And that happened in 2016, with a lot of efforts from our side, and of course from key member states, Russia and the US were involved in this communication and discussions with the parties on the ground.
In this “frozen conflict”, in relation to which a grand settlement is not in the cards in the immediate term, what is the value of a process such as the GID?
First of all, I would like to call it a “protracted conflict”. It’s not frozen in that sense that all kinds of things can and could happen, which calls for the attention of the UN, the UN Representative and our mission (UNRGID), because it’s a matter of maintaining a very fragile situation. We don’t have elements for a real peace agreement. We have even disputed documents from 2008: the two documents which in a way regulate the framework of the discussions are themselves disputed, every single element is disputed. So, managing this calls for the attention of the United Nations plus the two co-chairing organizations EU and OSCE. So, it’s constant work trying to maintain what we have achieved, and also of course encourage participants to interact and help to build trust and these building blocks for the eventual peace solution. I think, it’s this kind of situation where you just have to work hard in order to keep the bicycle running. But it is important to maintain it and, on the way, people communicate and build relationships and they solve certain pragmatic issues. Just last week, we have seen an exchange of prisoners. We had an exchange of prisoners also last year. The parties themselves organized it. It has been promoted by the international community and very much discussed, but they have started to find ways to solve pragmatic issues. I think that’s a result of the Geneva Discussions. And also, some environmental threats have been addressed in the Geneva Framework.
Such as what?
Related to something called ‘the stink bug’, which is destroying the harvest of hazelnuts and citrus and so on – very important agricultural harvests, especially for the conflict-affected population, the Georgian population living in the Gali district inside the Abkhaz-controlled territory. This has been addressed in direct discussions with Abkhaz and Georgian authorities, with the facilitation of the co-chairs of the Geneva discussions. This is very pragmatic, a kind of a side-product of the Geneva discussions, even though we haven’t moved very far in terms of the political framework of a possible settlement. You can say that it’s worthwhile and it’s important that we continue building blocks for a future settlement.
As a process, and you as a mediator, what lessons can you draw from it and are there lessons that can be applied to other similar, protracted conflicts, or even just generally in mediation elsewhere?
I think the UN’s impartial role is crucial, to be able to discuss with all parties – whether they are recognized internationally or not, so we can approach parties who are the key participants of the Geneva discussions and we are able to communicate with them in an impartial way, without prejudging of the final settlement and their status. I think that’s one of the elements I could say that could be applied to other situations. The textbooks of mediation are, of course, about building trust. That’s evidently what you need to do, constant consultations and so on. But I also think that the UN’s role, the UN family’s role as a whole is an important factor, which is building elements for the peace settlement of any conflict. The UN has access to Abkhazia and a lot of projects and programs working there. UNDP, UNICEF, UNHCR are some of those UN agencies and programs active in Abkhazia. We have been discussing the situation concerning IDPs and refugees, which is part of the Geneva Discussions. So, all these building blocks and work the UN family organizations are doing is an important asset in terms of a future solution. I think that’s also something that could be applied to other peace processes. I am talking not only about the political process or mediated settlement; I am also talking about the need to involve those organizations that can really make a difference on the ground, and really help mitigate problems of the conflict-affected population. And there, the UN as a whole can play an important role.
In that sense as well, partnerships with other organizations is also key. Nobody can do it alone. We need partnerships, and the financial resources from the EU and the experience of the OSCE. These synergies could even be used more. Of course, there are other cases I know of in Africa, for example, with the African Union and so on. So, it’s really important, because each partner has specific expertise and resource in the areas they are working in.
What aspect of your personality or character helped you most in this role?
It is hard for me to say for myself; my colleagues and team members may judge my achievement. But I think I am a rather calm person and I’m patient as well. I can listen for a long, long time to someone and try to keep my personal feelings, [laughs] and maybe aggravation sometimes, behind and try to understand. That’s an issue I have learned and that’s also one of the motivations why I have been in this business as long as I have been, to learn about the people and how they think and their culture, and the behavior and other factors to why they behave the way they do. You never learn enough of the culture, it’s a constant learning. It’s a challenge at the same time, trying to understand why they didn’t accept my ideas, or other co-chairs’ ideas, but when you start understanding the reasons behind it, it reveals quite a lot of the root causes of the conflict as well. That has been fascinating.