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Georgia: Moscow Talks On South Ossetia Continue Amid Moderate Optimism

Members of the four-party Joint Control Commission on South Ossetia are continuing talks in Moscow today in a bid to ease tension in the small South Caucasus separatist republic. RFE/RL reports that late yesterday, negotiators indicated they had made some progress, raising hope some sort of agreement could be reached before work on a Russian-Georgian friendship treaty resumes in Tbilisi.

15 July 2004 -- Although it was planned some time ago, the Moscow meeting of the Joint Control Commission (JCC) on South Ossetia primarily aims at defusing a crisis sparked by a recent string of events that took place in Georgia's breakaway province.

On 7 July, Georgian peacekeepers stationed in the region seized Russian military trucks loaded with weapons and ammunitions that Tbilisi claims were meant for the separatist regime in the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali. Moscow protested the incident, saying the cargo was destined for its own peacekeeping force deployed in the region.

The following day, South Ossetia's armed forces briefly detained dozens of Georgian peacekeepers in a village south of Tskhinvali. Although the incident was rapidly settled, it is nonetheless symptomatic of the tense climate that prevails in the breakaway republic.

Even before he was elected last January, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili had pledged to restore his country's territorial integrity by peaceful means. But his harsh rhetoric has raised concerns in both South Ossetia and Georgia's other separatist republic of Abkhazia.

Georgian officials claim that "armed mercenaries" have recently entered South Ossetia from Russia's neighboring autonomous republic of North Ossetia to assist the breakaway leadership. They also charge the Russian military -- who helped South Ossetia and Abkhazia secede in the early 1990s -- with allegedly preparing a campaign of "aggression" against their country.

On a state visit to London, Saakashvili yesterday lambasted General Svyatoslav Nabzdorov, the commander of the South Ossetian-based Russian peacekeeping force, whom he accused of stirring anti-Georgian feelings among local residents and openly advocating the province's integration into the Russian Federation.

However, Saakashvili said he counted on his good relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, saying the Kremlin leader's "pragmatism" could help defuse tension in the region.

"I do believe that some elements in Moscow are carrying out some aggressive plans and not only plans, but carrying out aggressive actions. These are people who have not gotten rid of, have not dropped, their imperial dreams and ambitions. Now I count on the pragmatism and the reasonable approach of President Putin," Saakashvili said

Both Georgian and Russian media today describe as "difficult" the ongoing JCC meeting -- which brings together representatives from Russia, Georgia, South Ossetia, and North Ossetia, which all have peacekeepers in the region.

Georgia insists that the so-called conflict zone -- as South Ossetia is sometimes known -- should be demilitarized and that Tbilisi should be granted control over the main communication route that links the breakaway region to North Ossetia. It has also called on those alleged "mercenaries" who have recently entered South Ossetia's Djava District to lay down their weapons and leave the area.

Russia and South Ossetia in turn demand that Georgia maintain no more than 500 peacekeepers in the conflict zone and that it withdraw all Interior Ministry troops it has sent near the area in recent weeks, officially to combat smugglers.

Addressing reporters yesterday after the end of the first round of negotiations, Russian First Deputy Foreign Minister Valeri Loshchinin said that, despite a number of difficult points, the sides had agreed on a few general principles.

"As we see, there [is] a general understanding that all illegal armed formations must be withdrawn from the conflict zone. That was mentioned by all [four] sides. In addition, the Georgian side has expressed the idea -- which we supported -- that we must set up a permanent inspection mechanism to clarify what illegal armed groups are [in the conflict zone], where they are located and ensure that they leave the area," Loshchinin said.

Minister for Conflict Resolution Giorgi Khaindrava, who represents Georgia at the talks, expressed similarly reserved optimism. Talking to Georgian reporters after he met Russia's National Security Council Secretary Igor Ivanov, Khaindrava said his interlocutor had assured him of Moscow's commitment to help defuse the tension peacefully if only to avert further destabilization in a region already shaken by the war in Chechnya.

"With regard to the situation that prevails in the region, in the world in general, and in the North Caucasus area in particular, I am convinced the Russian side does not need a conflict. Neither does it need an enclave where weapons, armed people and [gunmen] who are ready to shoot at people for money can circulate. [Ivanov] confirmed [to me] that this would represent a danger to everyone," he said.

Meanwhile, a Russian Foreign Ministry delegation led by Ambassador at large Igor Savolskii has arrived in Tbilisi to resume work on a comprehensive bilateral friendship treaty. Negotiations are due to begin tomorrow. This document is designed to replace a similar agreement signed in 1994 that Russian legislators never ratified. Earlier this year, Saakashvili and Putin agreed to accelerate work on the treaty, which is due to be signed when the Russian president visits the Georgian capital this fall.

On 13 July, Ivanov told reporters that both sides had also agreed to soon resume talks on the fate of Russia's two remaining military bases in Georgia. Other topics for negotiations, he said, include strengthening defense ties and cooperation against "terrorism" -- a word often used by Russian officials to describe Chechen separatism.

(compiled from wire reports)