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UN: New Envoy For Georgia Seeks To Revive Stalled Abkhaz Talks

  • Robert McMahon

Ten years after the outbreak of fighting that led to the separation of Abkhazia from the rest of Georgia, international efforts continue to broker a political settlement. The new United Nations special envoy for Georgia, Swiss diplomat Heidi Tagliavini, assumed her position during the summer amid rising tensions between Georgia and Russia over the alleged presence of Chechen terrorists in another part of Georgia, the Pankisi Gorge. This dispute and ongoing strife in Abkhazia's Kodori Gorge have so far stalled any chances of resuming political talks. But Tagliavini told RFE/RL that she is determined to get talks back on track and raise the international profile of the Georgia-Abkhaz dispute.

United Nations, 20 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- At a time of growing anxiety over the situation in Georgia's Pankisi Gorge, the unsettled conflict over Georgia's breakaway Abkhazia region remains virtually ignored.

A document on a division of powers between the two sides finally passed through a painstaking approval process at United Nations earlier this year. But there has been no opportunity to discuss it because of Russia's escalating concerns about Chechen separatists it says are operating in the Pankisi Gorge.

For Heidi Tagliavini, the Swiss diplomat newly assigned by the UN to restart the Georgia-Abkhaz peace process, the obstacles could not be more daunting. She told RFE/RL in an interview this week that in addition to the Pankisi conflict, ongoing tensions in Abkhazia's Kodori Gorge have for the time being blocked efforts at mounting a new process for a political settlement by the UN Mission in Georgia, or UNOMIG. "This [Kodori Gorge] has so much occupied our time in UNOMIG that we were very often dealing much more with crisis management than with the peace process. The situation is such that as soon as the situation deteriorates in the area, you can't put the sides together to speak about politics," Tagliavini said.

The small UN military observer mission carries out regular ground patrols in an area near the demarcation line that separates Abkhazia from the rest of Georgia. Kodori, on the Abkhaz side of the demarcation line, was the scene last autumn of deadly clashes between Abkhaz troops and alleged Georgian guerrillas and Chechen fighters.

Tbilisi subsequently dispatched army troops to the upper part of the gorge, officially to protect ethnic Georgians living there from separatist attacks. Tensions further worsened this past spring when Russian military helicopters deposited dozens of soldiers in a disputed area close to the demarcation line. Russia said it was part of a peacekeeping mission but withdrew the soldiers after Georgian and UN protests.

Tagliavini said her mission is exploring ways of strengthening its presence in the gorge. She declined to discuss in detail what new measures are under consideration but said patrols could be increased and the number of monitors increased from the current 109 to 136, which is allowed under the mission's mandate.

She said there is clear need for a more vigorous peacekeeping presence in the valley, but she said unilateral action is unacceptable. "The growing concern of the Abkhaz population that something might happen in the Kodori [Gorge] makes it absolutely necessary that more things should be done, but it's quite clear that it should never be done in a unilateral action. UNOMIG would be always against such operations," Tagliavini said.

Tagliavini said she recognizes the deep mistrust that has accumulated on both sides of the conflict in the past decade. But she said deeper-rooted enmities have also proven more difficult to reconcile. "I come from a country where compromise is the golden key word but it's very difficult in such conflicts. And there is a lot of hatred which is originated not from only the hostilities from 10 years ago, which was brutal, but from history. And, unfortunately, this [hatred] is speaking against being reasonable," Tagliavini said.

Calm must prevail in the Kodori Gorge before the Abkhaz side will consider further political talks, she said, and even then the resumption of negotiations will be difficult. Abkhaz leaders reject the document approved by a body known as the Group of Friends of the Secretary-General because it calls for Abkhazia to remain part of Georgia. Abkhaz leaders say the province has already asserted its right to independence.

Tagliavini said she will need the steady support of the group -- Russia, France, Britain, the United States, and Germany -- to move the process toward a comprehensive settlement. "I need their help. I need their support and I need their support also here in New York because in the field on my own sometimes, it's very difficult to bring through and to convince both sides that it's necessary to do this or that thing," Tagliavini said.

The new UN envoy said she will return regularly to UN headquarters in New York to consult with the Group of Friends of the Secretary-General. She said one consistent challenge will be focusing the interest of world powers on the importance of a Georgia-Abkhaz settlement at a time of other crises, ranging from nearby Pankisi to Iraq. "We have unfortunately so many conflicts in the world that very often Georgia is not at the forefront of the papers. I personally regret [this]. Not because it is a particularly beautiful part of the world and a forgotten part of the world but I think also it is a very important strategic place. It is [important] strategically, economically, politically. It is a place which we should not forget, so I am striving to make it more public," Tagliavini said.

Tagliavini has had previous experience in the Caucasus, working in Chechnya with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. She said she has been struck by the contrast between the region's rich beauty and the desperate humanitarian situation facing so many of its residents. Hundreds of thousands of people fled Abkhazia in the war and have lived nearly a decade in temporary housing. "Everywhere in the world we have refugees and [internally displaced persons living] in inhuman conditions. But it is unbelievable in such a fertile, such a rich country, to see this situation of [a total lack] of rights of some people," Tagliavini said.

One such fertile area is the Gali region, where tens of thousands of people, mainly Mingrelian farmers, have returned to scratch out a living harvesting hazelnuts. Tagliavini said this population is constantly under threat by the lawlessness in the region.

She said her mission next month will carry out a sweeping assessment of the law-enforcement situation in Gali. She said it will make recommendations to the UN Secretariat for new security measures, including training, new equipment, and advisers and possibly the introduction of some international police units.

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