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UN: Abkhazia Within Georgia Still The Basis of Talks, Says Envoy

  • Robert McMahon

A UN envoy says she hopes to begin initiating measures soon to restore trust between Georgian and separatist Abkhaz leaders despite a leadership shuffle in Abkhazia. But the envoy, Heidi Tagliavini, stresses that she will also continue to press for political talks between Tbilisi and Sukhum based on a document that calls for Abkhazia to remain part of Georgia. She spoke this week at UN headquarters with RFE/RL's Robert McMahon.

United Nations, 11 December 2002m (RFE/RL) -- The UN's special representative in Georgia says she will try to revive the stalled peace process over Abkhazia through parallel efforts to improve living conditions and build momentum for new political talks.

UN envoy Heidi Tagliavini told RFE/RL in an interview yesterday at UN headquarters that key UN Security Council members this week had confirmed their support for the document she is promoting as the basis for talks between Georgian and Abkhaz separatist leaders.

The paper sets out a division of powers between the Georgian central government and Abkhazia, giving the republic widespread autonomy within Georgia. Abkhaz leaders refuse to consider the document, citing their own referendum affirming the province's independence.

It is now nearly one year since the Security Council and members of the Friends of the Secretary-General for Georgia group endorsed the document. Western diplomats from the "Friends" group have expressed concern about the document's relevance unless it soon comes into use as a negotiating paper.

But Tagliavini says the paper, known as the Boden document, will not lose its validity: "Of course, time is a disturbing factor because the world is also evolving and changing, but we should not make this automatic equation [that] not accepting the document means that at one stage we will abandon it and forget about it and Abkhazia will be independent. I think this equation is dangerous."

Russia has the greatest influence on Abkhazia among members of the Friends group, which includes the United States, Britain, France, and Germany. Moscow has so far declined to exert strong pressure on Abkhaz officials into accepting the Boden document. It has recently recommended new confidence-building measures between Tbilisi and Sukhum.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Valerii Loshchinin told ITAR-TASS yesterday that the two sides should develop joint projects that could lead them to create what he called a "common economic expanse." One project he mentioned was a resumption of railway traffic between Georgia and Abkhazia.

Tagliavini says confidence-building measures are essential but should not serve as a substitute for the political process:

"As long as the status question is not addressed, as long as the Abkhaz status is not defined in a way which can be considered as a solution, it is very difficult to speak of a real breakthrough in the peace negotiations."

Tagliavini met late yesterday with representatives of the "Friends" group at UN headquarters. She says she has become encouraged by the new attention to the Georgia-Abkhazia conflict shown by key Security Council states. She mentioned Britain's new special representative for Georgia, Brian Fall, as well as Loshchinin and Rudolf Perina, who is U.S. envoy for special assignments: "All these sort of appointments show that somebody has to deal with this issue on a very regular basis, generating maybe also new ideas, and that's why we're actually now working on ways in how to make this ['Friends'] group work actively."

But some council members this week expressed concern that the recent dismissal of Abkhazia's de facto prime minister, Anri Jergenia, had further complicated the political process.

After the reshuffle nearly two weeks ago, Tagliavini went to Abkhazia to meet with the leadership, including the newly named prime minister, Gennadii Gagulia, the de facto foreign minister, Sergei Shamba, and Jergenia. She says the reason for the reshuffle is not yet clear.

"It is still very early to find out what is really the reason, but what interests me more is who is actually going to head the peace process," she said. "And it would not be a surprise if Mr. Shamba, who is in the peace negotiations since 1997, would take over this task at least for the coming months."

Tagliavini says if the Abkhaz leadership issue is sorted out soon, she is hoping to proceed with plans for a high-level meeting between Georgian and Abkhaz officials -- known as the Coordinating Council -- early next year on a range of issues. The meeting could review issues like security, displaced persons and social and economic rehabilitation.

One major effort already under way, she says, is a UN assessment of the security situation in the Gali district of Abkhazia, to which displaced persons from the rest of Georgia have been steadily returning: "I think one of the symbols of somehow a stable return is the number of children you bring in this area. And I must say I have been twice on a patrol in the lower Gali area and have been really surprised by the number of small children in the area, but it's really an utmost, the highest recommendation to create a stable environment for such people."

Tagliavini said the UN mission will make recommendations on ways to improve security in the district. These could include ways to improve the training and readiness of police, improving equipment and communication, and perhaps establishing joint police structures. Overall, more than 200,000 Georgians have been displaced from Abkhazia for nearly a decade.

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