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Georgia: South Ossetian Leaders Hold Direct Talks With Government Amid Unabated Tensions

Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania and South Ossetian separatist leader Eduard Kokoity discussed ways to ease tensions between Tbilisi and Tskhinvali today. The talks, which took place in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi, were the first high-level contacts between the two sides since the deadly armed clashes that pitted Georgian troops against South Ossetian armed forces last August. Yet, they are being overshadowed by new flare-ups in the separatist region.

Prague, 5 November 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The talks between Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania and South Ossetian President Eduard Kokoity lasted a little more than two hours, after which they continued at the delegation level.

No details were immediately available. Zhvania's office described the talks as "tense" and a South Ossetian official, Leonid Tibilov, said a joint statement would be issued later today.

Prior to the meeting, Zhvania had said he did not anticipate any breakthroughs. Addressing reporters in Tbilisi yesterday, he said Georgia nonetheless considers the Sochi meeting as an important step toward settling its sovereignty dispute with Tskhinvali.

"This issue cannot remain indefinitely suspended in the air. This conflict has been going on for 14 years now, and it is still not settled. We simply cannot go on like that. This is why we are trying to make use of all possible ways to peacefully settle our dispute," Zhvania said.

Among the main issues Zhvania said he planned to discuss with separatist leader Eduard Kokoity were South Ossetia's demilitarization, possible joint economic projects, and freedom of movement for all of the separatist region's ethnic Georgian residents. Also included on the agenda was joint control over the Roki tunnel, which connects South Ossetia to the Russian republic of North Ossetia.

Minister for Conflict Resolution Giorgi Khaindrava, who traveled with Zhvania to Sochi, said today the fact that Kokoity had, for the first time since his election three years ago, agreed to meet with high-ranking Georgian officials could help revive the stalled peace process.

Russia is represented at the meeting by First Deputy Foreign Minister Valerii Loshchinin and Murat Kulakhmetov, the commander of the joint peacekeeping force in South Ossetia.

Moscow helped South Ossetia win de facto independence from Georgia in the early 1990s and has been maintaining close political and economic ties with the secessionist province.

The Georgian government accuses Russia of hindering its efforts to restore control over South Ossetia and its other breakaway republic of Abkhazia. It also blames Moscow for granting Russian citizenship to residents of both provinces.

Parliamentary speaker Nino Burdjanadze earlier this week met with Russian officials in Moscow to discuss possible bilateral cooperation over what are commonly referred to as Georgia's "frozen conflicts."
Moscow helped South Ossetia win de facto independence from Georgia in the early 1990s and has been maintaining close political and economic ties with the secessionist province.

Addressing reporters on 2 November, Burdjanadze said Georgia is expecting concrete initiatives -- not just words -- from its northern neighbor. "Today, I made repeated offers that we should agree on a joint action plan that would help us build a good, normal relationship," she said. "I also suggested that we should issue a joint statement in which Russia would not only say it recognizes Georgia's territorial integrity, but would also commit itself to help Georgia restore its territorial integrity."

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, in turn, cautioned Georgia against the temptation to restore its authority over South Ossetia and Abkhazia by force. "The risk exists that either side may try at any time to forcibly decide developments. We believe it would be disastrous for the resolution of both the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict and the Georgian-[South] Ossetian conflict," Lavrov said.

Tbilisi and Tskhinvali had been coexisting in relative peace since the end of the 1991-92 separatist conflict. But tension flared up last spring amid South Ossetian fears that the new Georgian leadership might attempt to restore national territorial integrity by force.

In June, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili ordered Interior Ministry troops into South Ossetia, officially to curtail the flow of Russian contraband goods entering the country through the separatist region. Independent analysts say the move was actually aimed at bringing South Ossetia to its knees by suffocating its economy, in line with a similar plan successfully carried out a few weeks earlier in the restive autonomous republic of Adjara.

Growing tensions eventually degenerated into armed clashes that left at least 16 Georgian soldiers dead and an unspecified number of South Ossetian casualties.

Yielding to joint Russian and U.S. pressures, Georgian combat troops eventually withdrew from the region and abandoned their positions to the joint peacekeeping force in charge of monitoring the 1992 cease-fire.

But tensions remain high in the region. Russian, Georgian, and Ossetian peacekeepers have been the target of several attacks in the past few weeks, and South Ossetia's ethnic Georgians have been staging protests to demand safety guarantees from the separatist leadership.

Dozens of angry villagers yesterday blocked the highway linking Tskhinvali to the North Ossetian capital of Vladikavkaz to demand the liberation of a 22-year-old ethnic Georgian reportedly abducted by South Ossetian gunmen. Georgian media report the protesters lifted the blockade early today, but threatened to renew their action and abduct ethnic Ossetians if their demand is not met within the next few hours.

Meanwhile, Tbilisi today accused South Ossetian police of detaining some 50 ethnic Georgians who were trying to leave Tskhinvali and reach their home villages.

For the latest news on the tensions in South Ossetia, see RFE/RL's webpage on Ossetia and Georgia.

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