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Russia/Georgia: Four-Party Talks On South Ossetia Open In Moscow


Members of the Joint Control Commission on South Ossetia meet today in Moscow in a bid to defuse a looming crisis between Russia and Georgia over the South Caucasus separatist republic. Moscow and Tbilisi have reportedly prepared individual complaints to discuss at the talks. Yet, as RFE/RL reports, both sides say they are committed to solve their dispute through compromise and dialogue.

Prague, 14 July 2004 (RFE/RL) – Today’s meeting brings together all four co-chairmen of the Joint Control Commission (JCC) on South Ossetia, as well as high-ranking Russian and Georgian government officials.

Political commentators in Moscow note the sides have decided to raise the usually low profile of the scheduled JCC session because of the recent tensions between Russia and Georgia over the small separatist republic.

Speaking on 13 July after talks in Moscow with his Russian counterpart Igor Ivanov, Georgian National Security Council Secretary Gela Bezhuashvili said he held hope the upcoming meeting would prove fruitful.

"We are expecting [the Russian side] to adopt a constructive approach,” Bezhuashvili said. “We have concrete proposals that are all based on those official documents the sides are constantly referring to. We intend to defend the principles that have been agreed upon by Georgia's National Security Council. Those principles will be put forward [on 14 July] by [Georgia's chief negotiator] Giorgi Khaindrava."

The JCC comprises representatives of Russia, Georgia, South Ossetia, and Russia's southern republic of North Ossetia. It was set up to monitor the cease-fire that followed the short separatist conflict that pitted South Ossetia against Georgia in the early 1990s.

Despite Russia's active involvement in the JCC, Moscow is largely perceived by the Georgian political leadership as being the main obstacle to a peaceful settlement of the South Ossetian conflict, because of the political and economic backing it has been lending to the separatist regime in Tskhinvali. Voices in Tbilisi have been demanding that Russian peacekeepers be withdrawn from the area.

Moscow, in turn, maintains it is the guarantor of peace and security in South Ossetia -- a claim Ivanov reiterated on 13 July after meeting Bezhuashvili. "It is clear that the [Russian] peacekeepers have fulfilled a very important mission since they have been deployed [in the region]," Ivanov said. "The peacekeepers have largely contributed to averting tension and any serious conflicts and we hope [they] will continue to fulfill their mission in the future. In any case no side is demanding that an end be put to their mission."

The warming of Russian-Georgian ties that followed last November's change of leadership in Tbilisi had raised initial hopes of a rapid settlement of the South Ossetian dispute. But Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's firm pledges to restore control over the breakaway region have fueled concerns in Tskhinvali and triggered tension in the so-called conflict zone, as South Ossetia is known in Tbilisi.

In addition, Saakashvili on 11 July blamed unspecified "forces" in Russia for using the situation in South Ossetia to plot an "aggression against Georgia."

Georgian officials recently accused Russia of supplying South Ossetia with weapons and ammunitions and turning a blind eye to alleged armed volunteers entering the separatist region from North Ossetia.

In the latest developments, South Ossetian armed forces on 8 July briefly detained Georgian peacekeepers deployed in the conflict zone. On 13 July, Georgia seized a Russian convoy loaded with flour and other humanitarian aid meant for South Ossetian villagers.

Givi Targamadze, the chairman of the Georgian parliament's Defense Committee, insisted on 13 July that the goods be cleared by Georgian customs officials. Otherwise, he said, they will be considered contraband. "These goods must be registered with the [Georgian] Finance Ministry as humanitarian aid," he said. "This hasn't happened yet, although they could get custom clearance at once. After these goods get official status, [the Russian side] may distribute them to whomever they want. But under present circumstances, these goods are being considered as contraband."

As the JCC session was convening in Moscow, Russian First Deputy Foreign Minister Valerii Loshchinin said today the sides were nearing an agreement over the fate of the humanitarian goods.

In another positive sign, the commander of the Russian peacekeepers made it clear that he will abide by any decision reached in Moscow and said he would not force his way past Georgian troops in order to reach the South Ossetian villagers.

"If the decision is made to turn back, then we will turn back," said General Svyatoslav Nabzdorov, who is traveling with the humanitarian convoy.

(RFE/RL's Georgian Service correspondent Zurab Dvali contributed to this report.)
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