Submitted by John W. McDonald and The Institute for Multi-Track Diplomacy

From September 21 to October 2, 2013, John W. McDonald, Ambassador (ret.), made his 4th visit to the Republic of Georgia, this one arranged by the new IMTD-Georgia office, to be officially launched during Ambassador McDonald’s visit.

The presidential elections in Georgia were just a few weeks away, and Russia’s continued incursions into Georgia deepened the concern of the Georgia’s government and its population.  Yet despite a climate of political tension, many positive meetings, dialogues and discussions took place with Track I and Track II representatives.

Thanks to the excellent preparations by the IMTD-Georgia leaders and staff, Ambassador McDonald, accompanied by his wife Christel, had the opportunity to meet with representatives – survivors – from the Wars of Abkhazia and Ossetia (1991/92 and 2008), who fought against each other and are now living in present-day Georgia. They have been trying for two decades to overcome the great psychological and political divide caused by the previous wars, seeking mutual forgiveness and working on reconciliation.

After a couple of hours of discussion and lively dialogue as well as listening to many stories, it appeared that a foundation was laid for an atmosphere of apology and forgiveness for the past horrors on both sides. Totally unexpectedly, Major General (ret.) Koba Kabaladze stood up and declared to all in the room: “I apologize and I forgive”, an amazing statement that was followed by a round of shaking hands and embraces by all participants. It was an incredible and historic moment! The remaining hour was spent on discussing the possible development of a Memorandum of Understanding to undertake projects for the benefit of both sides, such as the issue of encouraging the Georgian Government to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (signed by Georgia in 2009, but never ratified by the Parliament).   It is hoped that further positive projects can be undertaken to strengthen the relationships between these dedicated former military leaders who understand the value of peacebuilding for their country.

Ambassador McDonald also spoke to faculty and staff at Caucasus International University and attended an international conference on “multi-track diplomacy”, organized by Dr. Alexander Rusetzky, with delegates from Ukraine, Russia, Latvia, Lithuania, Switzerland and Georgia, including the Georgian Minister of Reintegration, Mr. Paata Zakareishvili. In addition, he spoke at the Ilia State University in Dedosfliskaro and to students who came to a meeting organized at the Guest House of the Museum of Prince Chavchavadze, beloved 19th century poet, in Tsinandali. Ambassador McDonald also addressed faculty and students at the Georgian Institute for Public Affairs (GIPA), together with its Director, Dr. George Khutsishvili. Ambassador McDonald stressed in his lectures the role of multi-track diplomacy in regional conflicts and urged everyone to “think out of the box” when it comes to conflicts where sovereignty prevents other governments from helping suffering people. A new approach for a solution in intra-state conflicts as well as the interpretation of genocide is much needed. In addition, he stated his belief that an economic free trade arrangement between Georgia, Armenia and Turkey might prove beneficial in future relations.

IMTD-Georgia was able to not only organize meetings for Ambassador McDonald with non-governmental organizations and academia, but also with government officials. In his meeting with the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ms Maja Panjikdize, Ambassador McDonald reiterated the importance of the creation of a Peace Zone for Abkhazia, an idea which he had proposed ten years ago and which the then President Shevardnadze had accepted. The conversation also turned to the present situation in South Ossetia and the continuing illegal incursions by Russia into Georgia territory. Minister Panjikdize had just spoken out publicly and vigorously about this issue. Ambassador McDonald urged her to reach out beyond Georgia and promised his help. He suggested, among others, to raise the issue with the EU which had signed an Agreement with Russia in 2008 to halt its further extensions into Georgian territory. Simultaneously, the US Department of State condemned Mr. Putin for his aggression in South Ossetia. Minister Panjikdize, in her visit to Berlin in early October 2013 urged the German government to get the EU to remind Russia of the terms of the Agreement they signed in 2008. In addition, Ambassador McDonald shared with Minister Panjikdize his plan on getting the UN to organize a meeting in 2016 to focus on how best to deal with intra-state conflict in the future, as sovereignty prevents countries from helping people suffering in intra-state wars.

Ambassador McDonald was delighted to meet with the First Deputy Minister of Environment and Natural Resources Protection of Georgia, Ms. Nino Sharashidze, and Deputy Minister Mr. Shalva Amiredjibi. They shared their involvement in the work of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) as well as the need to strengthen the future negotiations with regard to environmental sustainability and development. Ambassador McDonald suggested that citizen action can also be helpful and pointed out IMTD’s efforts with the project of “IamOneinaBillion” that could be helpful.

In his meeting with the Minister of Reintegration, Mr. Paata Zakareshvili, regarding future action for Georgia in the field of peacebuilding, Ambassador McDonald suggested that Georgia join in 2014 the millions of people around the world by instating an International Day of Peace, adopted by a UN Resolution in 1980. Based on the most recent aggressive actions taken by the Russians in making further inroads into Southern Ossetia, Ambassador McDonald reiterated his suggestion that Georgia remind the EU of its obligation to insist on Russia’s commitment in the Agreement of 2008 to stop further incursions into South Ossetia. He also suggested that Georgia considers thoughtfully its commitment to the UN Convention of the Right of the Disabled and get the Parliament to ratify this document, to build a better future for its disabled citizens.

A visit with the Minister of Sport and Youth Affairs, Mr. Levan Kipiani, led to a lively discussion concerning the important role of sports as a trust-building measure in regional conflict.  Ambassador McDonald suggested that a good beginning could be made with soccer teams in Abkhazia who eventually would be invited to play against high school teams in Georgia. Perhaps His Holiness and Beatitude the Patriarch of Georgia, Ilia II, could play a role in bringing groups together thanks to his long-standing experience of life in Abkhazia.

During Ambassador McDonald’s visit to Dedosfliskaro, he was welcomed by its Mayor, Mr Irakli Shiolashvili. It is a city with great hopes for a positive development, yet in an area threatened by religious strife between the Christian population and small numbers of Muslims spreading in the area. Ambassador McDonald and his wife Christel presented the Mayor with a small token expressing future a hope: a little peace pole made in the United States, an encouragement to continue the positive actions so far taken to create one day a peace village.

Ambassador McDonald and his wife Christel were most grateful for the invitation to meet His Holiness Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia and spiritual leader of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Ilia II, in his residence.  It was a precious time of an extended audience with His Holiness, with probing political, economic and social topics as well as the present tensions over border issues- and also including a few personal moments to listen to the Ave Maria, one of the Georgian Patriarch’s musical creations. Our visit to this most trusted man in Georgia, with keen knowledge of Abkhazia where he spent eleven years, ended with a visit to his peaceful personal retreat, a Garden filled with age-old bonsai trees, orchids and a piano – a place for inspiration of more divine music and peace.

A concert of three of Georgia’s beloved rock bands took us away from the daily worries we shared with the Georgian people and led us to one of the City parks where Irakli Kakabadze, poet and peace activist, and most importantly our trusted leader, had organized a peace concert. Ambassador McDonald was asked to open the rock concert which he did with great pleasure, praising music for bringing people together and an enthusiastic: “I herewith open the Concert : PEACE Rocks!”

The media from TV, newspapers and radio followed Ambassador McDonald and his wife to almost every venue, and even reporters from Italy, Scotland and Switzerland took note of the visit and IMTD’s systems approach to peacebuilding in a country that will have a bright future provided it is able to be awarded the support it deserves from the West.

IMTD is grateful to its IMTD-Georgia partners, who so successfully launched their activities during Ambassador McDonald’s visit, for the benefit of all Georgians. Ambassador McDonald and his wife Christel cannot praise enough their excellent driver, “young Levan”, to get us everywhere within the country in a safe and timely manner; and they are immensely appreciative of the professional interpretation skills into English of Olena and Asmati. It is hoped that IMTD-Georgia’s Executive Director Levan Geradze as well as George Chanturia will be successful in vigorously developing new projects in Georgia and get the support and funding needed for future and already existing projects.

We mourn with all our Georgian friends the sudden death of Professor Dr. George Khutsishvili, founder and director of the International Centre on Conflict and Negotiation (ICCN), an important think-tank and civil society actor in Georgia and the South Caucasus.  We cherish his warm welcome to his Institute and deeply appreciate his surprise appearance at our hotel to say good bye late in the night of our departure. We will remember him with fondness and admiration.