The political stalemate between Georgia and its breakaway province of Abkhazia is approaching its eighth year. UN Special Representative Dieter Boden tells RFE/RL correspondent Robert McMahon the key sticking point remains Abkhazia's status.
United Nations, 27 July 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The appointment late last year of German diplomat Dieter Boden as the UN's new special representative in Georgia brought hopes for fresh momentum in talks between the government and the breakaway republic of Abkhazia.
As head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's mission to Georgia in 1995 and 1996, Boden mediated between Tbilisi and Georgia's breakaway republic of South Ossetia. He was charged by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan with injecting new life into the Abkhaz talks.
But progress has been slow. That is due in part to delays following the re-election of Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze three months ago and his reshuffling of the government. The war in nearby Chechnya has also played a role, creating friction between Georgia and Russia, which is expected to be a facilitator of the peace process.
Boden is visiting UN headquarters in New York this week for meetings connected with the Security Council's review of the Georgian mission. In an interview with our correspondent yesterday, he spoke about his hopes for reviving direct talks between the Georgian and Abkhaz sides.
He says he believes there is room for both sides to discuss details of a fully autonomous Abkhazia within Georgia:
"The UN position is clear: we want Abkhazia -- as we said in the last resolution -- to be within the state of Georgia. Of course, it has to be negotiated what this means in greater detail. It should mean a very high amount of autonomy. This is also what Georgian President Shevardnadze has always stressed."
A document that defines the division of constitutional authority between Georgia and Abkhazia is being drafted by the UN in coordination with five states that belong to the "Friends of the UN Secretary-General for Georgia." But some differences have emerged in the group about the approach to take on the status issue.
Boden would not go into details, saying at the moment the group cannot "perfectly agree" on the wording of the text.
Russia is a member of the "Friends" group along with the United States, Britain, France and Germany. Russia is also a major contributor to the 1,600-member CIS peacekeeping force in Abkhazia.
Some critics on the Georgian side have accused Russia of trying to destabilize the situation in Abkhazia to complicate the withdrawal of Russian forces from military bases in Georgia.
Boden says Russia's overriding concern in the Trans-Caucasus is stability. The UN hopes Russia can play a positive role in a peace settlement, as it did in Tajikistan, where the world organization has completed its peace mission. But Boden is concerned by the recent deterioration in Russian-Georgian relations, made worse by Russian military accusations the Georgians are aiding Chechen fighters.
"This affects us very directly because Russia is, as we say, the facilitator toward a settlement of the Abkhaz conflict. So when the bilateral relations with Georgia deteriorate, that of course has a negative impact on conflicts settlement in Abkhazia and this, unfortunately, has been the case. So I hope this is a temporary thing and we'll overcome it because we need Russia as an active partner in that peace process."
Boden says there are signs the peace process is reviving. He points to the signing this month (11 July) by the two sides of a protocol outlining measures to prevent new destabilization in southern Abkhazia. Both sides agreed not to resort to force and to reduce to no more than 600 the number of police and troops each side can deployed in the conflict region.
Georgia continues to attract international attention due in part to concerns of both a humanitarian and geo-political nature. There are still about 280,000 internally displaced people from the Georgia-Abkhaz conflict living in poor conditions in Georgia. Their welfare and the unsettled nature of the Abkhaz conflict pose a threat to Georgia's development and its ability to serve as a stable pipeline route for energy from the Caspian Sea region.
Boden says the internally displaced are being abused by the Georgian and Abkhaz sides as bargaining points in their ongoing talks.
"Their living conditions are clearly insufficient. There is no medical care, there is still only a few schools that really work. There is no clear functioning administration. So in all this context, of course, the refugees are being used by both sides, politically, as one main issue to accuse the others of unwillingness to just come to political solutions."
The 102-member UN observer mission to Georgia is up for renewal at tomorrow's open meeting of the Security Council. Four of the five permanent members of the council belong to the "Friends of Georgia" group and Boden is hoping for a signal that the paper on Abkhazia's status will soon be ready.
"I hope for a strong resolution that really focuses on our actual need. That means the elaboration of that concept paper among the Group of Friends. I think that's welcome if there is support by the Security Council for that objective. It gives me the necessary support in order to have such a basis for negotiations in the very near future."
Boden says everything else in the peace process may be jeopardized if there is no agreement on the negotiating points for Abkhazia's political status.