The Bear's Lair

(The following post was contributed by Jan Weisensee. Jan holds an MA in EU International Relations and Diplomacy Studies from the College of Europe. The following views are his own)

After five days of war between the Georgian army, Russian troops and South Ossetian and Abkhaz para-military forces in August 2008, French president Nicholas Sarkozy succeeded in brokering a ceasefire between the parties involved that eventually paved the way for the deployment of around 300 EU monitors (EUMM) in the region. The so-called six-point agreement of 12 August as well as the more specific 8 September agreement have been highly criticised for being too “foggy and ambiguous”. It has also left important unresolved issues, the most problematic being the geographical scope of EUMM. The mission’s mandate defines its operation area as follows: “EUMM Georgia shall provide civilian monitoring […] throughout Georgia” and shall “contribute to long-term stability throughout Georgia and the surrounding region.” The crux is that none of the documents clearly addresses the question of Georgia’s territorial integrity and therefore, the term ‘Georgia’ remains undefined. It is because of this ambiguity that Russia and the EU still do not agree on whether EUMM is allowed to enter South Ossetia and Abkhazia – up to now it is not.

Many scholars believe that ambiguous statements in peace agreements fulfil a clear and indeed quite useful role, because the room they provide for interpretation makes it more likely for an agreement to be accepted by the conflicting parties. But given the unresolved issues in Georgia, more than two years after the end of the small war, it would seem that in the case of Georgia, the so-called ‘constructive ambiguity’ has led to a political impasse as none of the parties can allow itself to give in without losing face.

Constructive ambiguity

Dražen Pehar defines an ambiguous statement as one which has several incompatible meanings. According to Pehar, “Ambiguities are pieces of language that:

1) Can be interpreted as meaning A

2) Can be interpreted as meaning B

3) Cannot be interpreted as A and B simultaneously

The term ‘Georgia’, as it is used in most official documents relating to EUMM, is such an ambiguity. It can be interpreted as

1. Georgia including South Ossetia and Abkhazia

2. Georgia without these two regions (‘Georgia proper’)

3. However, quite obviously, it cannot be interpreted as meaning both, i,e with and without the two regions.

During negotiations, there are logical reasons to choose expressions allowing for several interpretations. First, when two or more positions in a conflict are incompatible with each other, the use of ambiguous language may help both sides to come to an initial agreement that enables them to make real progress on other matters. As G.R Berridge point out, the ground “might be prepared for a return to the unresolved question at a later date or time might even see it dissolve altogether.”Second, and particularly in situations of violent conflict, for humanitarian reasons an immediate ambiguous agreement on a ceasefire is often better than an all-encompassing peace treaty, whose negotiation would need more time. Third, Pehar argues that the use of an ambiguous wording makes the post-conflict situation more predictable. This is because in most cases, the negotiating parties are fully aware of the existence of ambiguities in their agreement. As in the case of Georgia, the parties deliberately accepted an unclear formulation, assuming that they will be able to exploit it at a later stage for their own benefit. As long as the parties’ actual positions are known, their post-conflict behaviour might indeed be easier to predict. As Pehar argues, “the process of political fight will be more channelled, more orderly […] if one knows in advance which provisions of the jointly adopted text will give rise to a conflict in opinion or interpretation. ”

How constructive has ambiguous language been in Georgia?

In our case, the first of Pehar’s arguments seems to be valid. By avoiding addressing the most controversial issue of the regions’ status, it was possible to come to a ceasefire agreement only five days after the beginning of the conflict. Of course, the prompt ending of the violent conflict also had other reasons, most notably Georgia’s military incapacity to defeat the Russian army. Yet, if one of the parties had insisted on a preceding resolution of the status question for South Ossetia and Abkhazia, it is unlikely that the fighting would have come to an end so quickly. The choice of “a return to the unresolved question at a later date” has thus been a necessary, albeit not sufficient, condition for an effective ceasefire. However, it is arguable to what extent the conflicting parties are willing to debate the remaining question at a later point in time. This is only likely to happen if they are ready “to accept tradeoffs in interpretation, to make further concessions and to engage in a common search for a third interpretation.” So far, this has not been the case in Georgia and EUMM’s area of operations remains limited to Georgia proper.

The second argument mentioned above includes a normative judgement on how long a war is worth being fought and how many casualties one should be willing to accept. For Pehar it is clear that a deadly conflict must be stopped as soon as possible, an objective that had been reached in the case of Georgia. Officially, the war left about 850 dead and more than 100,000 internally displaced persons, numbers which – according to this argument – should sufficiently justify the use of ambiguous expressions in the peace agreements between the conflicting parties.

Third, the coming into force of the agreement indeed seems to have channelled the conflict into non-violent forms, which are as such easier to predict. The question of the regions’ status was always likely to become the most important political conflict line – especially since Russia unilaterally recognised the their independence on 26 August 2008. In spite of their ambiguous character, the agreements transformed the post-conflict situation into a more orderly framework of political talks with clearly identified points of dissent. These talks were launched on 15 October 2008 in Geneva (but have to date failed to show significant success).

The use of ambiguous language in the two agreements as well as in the EUMM mandate can therefore be justified as a necessary condition to stop violence and replace it by a political process. However, it remains unclear, what this process is able to achieve. To date, the most important achievement basically consists of the so-called Incident Prevention and Response Mechanism (IPRM), an arrangement which provides for regular discussions among observers and security personnel as well as joint investigations of incidents between conflicting groups on the ground. After a promising start, however, the IPRM seems to be deadlocked by quarrels about the venue and – again – the question of recognition. At the same time, Russia not only violated international law by unilaterally recognising the two regions’ independence, it also continues to ignore the provisions of the peace agreements, with an estimated 7,600 Russian troops deployed in South Ossetia and Abkhazia and plans to further expand and consolidate the military presence. This clearly flies in the face of the six-point agreement which called for a return to the status quo ante bellum (which is 500 Russian peacekeepers). Thus, the mutually contradictory interpretations of the unclear language might lead to new tensions or even hostilities.

Dražen Pehar admits that “ambiguous agreements may quickly lead to arguments, and turn into disagreements, as, precisely due to ambiguities, conflicts in interpretation will necessarily break out.” And he goes even further: “For that reason implementation of an ambiguous agreement is very likely to fail.” This is precisely what can be observed in the case of Georgia. The implementation of EUMM is rather limited and the international discussions in Geneva are unlikely to effectively address the status question of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. During the press conference following the signing of the 8 September agreement, Sarkozy took care to avoid a clear answer as to whether this issue would be addressed in Geneva.

Stalemate in Georgia, or will somebody make the first move?

In Georgia it seems that the constructive ambiguity led to an almost unresolvable stalemate. Both, Russia and the EU signed the peace agreements and accepted the mandate given to EUMM, which allows the monitors to perform their tasks “throughout Georgia”. On the one hand, the longer the EU tacitly accepts that its mission only acts within the borders of Georgia proper, the easier one can argue Europe implicitly recognises that the term “throughout Georgia” excludes South Ossetia and Abkhazia. On the other hand, as soon as Russia allows EUMM to enter these regions, others could claim it implicitly admits that they are part of “throughout Georgia”. Therefore, the ambiguous agreements created a zero-sum situation, in which neither side is able to break the deadlock without completely abandoning its own position.

In Georgia, the compromise that advocates of constructive ambiguity expect to be reached through political negotiations seems to be inaccessible. The firm commitment that both Russia and the EU have made with respect to the contentious term of ‘Georgia’ (through diplomatic recognition and through deployment of EUMM respectively) has led to an impasse too narrow to be overcome within a reasonable time frame. Although the political process in Geneva may produce some results, it is unlikely to settle the conflict on the status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia – a question which has been the trigger of war in the first place.

Author :


  1. Very interesting paper.

    I am glad that you found my (which is now presented in a more
    academic and theoretical format) analysis applicable. I would slightly disagree with the concluding paragraphs of the
    second section – my paper has not intended to provide a bleak or pessimist
    view of ambiguous provisions; I think I emphasized that the fact that ambiguities lead to a failure of implementation can often be traced back
    to the parties inability to recognize an ambiguous provision as strictly

    Please do not hesitate to contact, should you decide to work further on
    the extremely interesting (and yet insufficiently attended by scholars working in the field of diplomacy/international politics) topic.

    Best regards
    Dr Pehar

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