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Georgia: Saakashvili Blows Hot And Cold On Separatist Issue

The president of Georgia has sent mixed signals this week to the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Following a government reshuffle aimed at enhancing Georgian defense and security capabilities, Mikheil Saakashvili on 15 December suggested he might resort to force to bring the rebellious provinces back into the fold. The next day, however, he reiterated a previous commitment to restore Georgia's territorial integrity through peaceful means.

Prague, 17 December 2004 (RFE/RL) -- On 15 December, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili introduced his country's military leaders to the new defense minister, Irakli Okruashvili.

"I want you all to understand one thing. I know the defense minister has already been changed twice this year and that it has been difficult for you. But I give you my word as a president: Irakli Okruashvili will remain [defense] minister until [Georgia's] territorial integrity is restored. This is why he's coming to work here," Saakashvili said.

Since Saakashvili's election in January, Okruashvili has occupied the posts of prosecutor-general and interior minister, gaining a reputation of firmness in both positions.

Under Okruashvili, Georgian Interior Ministry troops entered South Ossetia last June, officially to combat smuggling rings in the area. The move triggered a series of clashes with South Ossetia's armed forces and threatened to revive a 12-year-old separatist conflict.

South Ossetia's Foreign Minister Murat Djioev yesterday blamed Okruashvili for last summer's tensions and called on the Georgian leadership to refrain from violence.

Abkhazia's presidential spokesman, Roin Agrba, in turn accused Okruashvili of seeking to settle Georgia's sovereignty disputes through force.

Sergei Bagapsh, the Abkhaz opposition leader who is likely to become president next month, yesterday ruled out any possibility of his region returning into Georgia's fold. "This issue is not being considered and will not be considered, say, for the next 100 years," he said. "There is only one issue that is being considered, that is to ensure that all laws and regulations of the Russian Federation are applied in the republic of Abkhazia."

Both South Ossetia and Abkhazia gained de facto independence from Georgia in the early 1990s and both have since maintained close political and economic ties with Russia.

Commenting on Bagapsh's statement, Okruashvili suggested it would take just a few years for Georgia to regain control over Abkhazia and South Ossetia. " I do not intend to remain [defense] minister more than five years," he said. "That leaves [Bagapsh] faced with the following choice: either by the end of this period he returns to his native Russia, or he leaves this world."

Bagapsh is in fact a native of Sukhum, the capital of Abkhazia. Today, he expressed concern over what he described as Okruashvili's "personal threats."

Saakashvili has vowed to restore Georgia's territorial integrity by the end of his five-year term. With Russian help, he reasserted central control last May over the restive autonomous province of Adjara.

Despite his vague threats to use force earlier this week, Saakashvili today reiterated a previous commitment to peacefully resolve Georgia's separatist disputes.

Meeting with Interior Ministry staff yesterday, Saakashvili said restoring Georgia's territorial integrity is a "political issue." He added that he would eventually find a "common language" with both separatist republics.