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Little progress after diplomatic push over Abkhazia

By Temur Kiguradze
Tuesday, June 10
Moscow yesterday welcomed the “new approach” of foreign officials who visited Abkhazia in a Western diplomatic push to cool tensions over the breakaway region, but gave no signal compromise with Tbilisi was at hand.

“It seems that these politicians and diplomats, who [had] preferred to receive information about Abkhazia ‘at third-hand’ for a long time, have finally decided that it is better to see [it first hand],” a Russian Foreign Ministry statement read.

The statement singled out diplomats including EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, who met separatist officials in Sokhumi on June 6.

His trip was part of a wider diplomatic effort to ease tensions around Abkhazia as Tbilisi accuses Moscow of trying to annex the breakaway region.

“[The EU] intends to have more active involvement in the resolution of all disputable issues,” Abkhaz news agency Apsnypress quoted Solana as saying.

Solana acknowledged the importance of Russia in the conflict zone and said it should play a constructive role.

At a press conference in Tbilisi last week Solana described Russia’s recent moves as “not measures which would continue to lower the temperature” in Abkhazia. But he said any change in the Russian-led peacekeeping format would require the agreement of both the Abkhaz and the Georgians.

Abkhaz de facto president Sergey Bagapsh said he and Solana reached an understanding that it would be “impossible to have a serious political dialogue without involving the Russian side,” according to Georgian television station Mze.

Bagapsh added that the Abkhaz leadership “understand the European Union’s position and its desire to participate in this process.”

Last week Matthew Bryza, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, visited Moscow to discuss the situation with Russian officials.

He said efforts to bring peace to Abkhazia were thrown off-course when Russia unilaterally deployed additional peacekeeping troops to the region.

“Just at the moment when we were close to a breakthrough, in a positive sense, the increase of Russia's military presence complicated the situation,” Bryza said in an interview with the Russian news agency Interfax.

He added that the US is trying to bring the Georgian and Abkhaz together to agree on a peace plan that will “reduce or eliminate the threat of war,” and that he was in Moscow to “elicit the help of our Russian colleagues to do the same thing.”

Tbilisi and separatist Abkhaz leadership broke off formal peace talks after Georgian forces retook control of Abkhazia’s lawless Kodori Gorge in 2006.

This spring Russia moved to formalize links with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, increased its peacekeeping contingent in Abkhazia and deployed military engineers to repair the railways in the region. All moves were met with outrage in Tbilisi, which has vigorously pushed for a new peacekeeping format which leaves out the Russian troops Georgia says are effectively annexing the territory.

Bryza had harsh words for the deployment of the railway engineers, saying it worked against attempts to restart peace talks between Abkhaz and Georgia.

“These are not peacekeepers, they are construction troops. No one is even pretending that they are peacekeepers. There is absolutely no framework to allow that to happen,” he said.

Bryza stopped short of backing Georgia’s call for a new format, saying the Russian-led peacekeepers “have played a constructive role” and any changes need to take Abkhaz concerns into account.

But he also said a police force, possibly an international one, is needed in southern Abkhazia’s Gali district to protect the predominantly ethnic Georgian locals.

Tbilisi says it wants an international police force to replace the Russian peacekeepers in Abkhazia.

Despite the diplomatic push, tensions show no sign of slackening.

In yesterday’s Russian Kommersant Vlast magazine, Georgian Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili is quoted as saying that if Abkhazia continues “to act in the same way” as it has been, the Georgian government will have to “take measures for the protection of its territorial integrity both from [the Kodori Gorge] and the other territories.”

He also reportedly said Russia was ready to start a war to block Georgia’s entrance to NATO.

Tbilisi has officially denied accusations it is preparing to launch an invasion from Kodori Gorge, and UN observers say they’ve found no evidence of a military build-up there.

But a report released by the International Crisis Group think-tank last week said that hawks in Tbilisi are considering the military option.

“A number of powerful advisers and structures around President Mikheil Saakashvili appear increasingly convinced a military option in Abkhazia is feasible and necessary,” the report says.