BRUSSELS, 25 January 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Georgia today made clear it wants to see far greater EU involvement in the South Caucasus than has so far been the case, and quickly.
Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili reiterated Georgia's interest in a new five-year EU New Neighborhood Policy "action plan" it expects to sign in February. But he left little doubt that Georgia needs considerably more than long-term support for political and economic reforms in the country.
Two issues above all seem to have arrived at a critical juncture for Georgia. One is the "frozen conflict" in the breakaway republic of South Ossetia, the other its recent problems with gas supplies. Both involve Russia and specific requests for EU backing.
Bezhuashvili said South Ossetia will be "very high" among Georgia's priorities in 2006. Together with another breakaway republic, Abkhazia, he said, South Ossetia presents the gravest threat to Georgia.
"Assistance in finding solution to such issues as [Georgian-Russian] border delimitation, border monitoring, as I mentioned, [the] promotion of cooperation between Georgia's and Russia's border-guard services, in order to ensure [the] proper management of Georgia's entire border with Russia, would significantly improve the conditions of conflict resolution." -- Georgian Foreign Minister Bezhuashvili
"The most serious impediment for the consolidation of democracy and economic development in Georgia has been internal so-called 'frozen conflicts' in Abkhazia and South Ossetia," Bezhuashvili said. "[The] existence of conflicts poses a major threat to the security and development of not only Georgia, but is detrimental to democracy, security, and stability in the South Caucasus region as a whole."
Bezhuashvili indicated that Georgia believes Russia remains the greatest obstacle to a settlement. He said Russia appears to have no intention of supporting a Georgian peace plan for South Ossetia that Moscow among other OSCE states endorsed late last year.
Bezhuashvili urged the EU to use its leverage with Russia.
"We very much expect the issue of South Ossetia settlement to become part of the EU agenda in dialogue with Russia," Bezhuashvili said. "Assistance in finding solution to such issues as [Georgian-Russian] border delimitation, border monitoring, as I mentioned, [the] promotion of cooperation between Georgia's and Russia's border-guard services, in order to ensure [the] proper management of Georgia's entire border with Russia, would significantly improve the conditions of conflict resolution."
There were other specific requests. Bezhuashvili said that if a settlement is reached, Georgia wants the EU become involved in the Joint Control Commission which, he said, is heavily biased against Georgia. The commission comprises Russia, North Ossetia, South Ossetia, and Georgia.
The minister said he wants the mandate of the EU's special representative to the South Caucasus to be extended. The present incumbent, Heikki Talvitie, is expected to be replaced at the end of February, but EU sources speaking to RFE/RL ruled out significant changes to the official's mandate.
In the event that a settlement is reached, Georgia also wants an EU commitment to send an assessment mission to ensure the breakaway region is demilitarized, and to contribute peacekeeping troops.
An EU official told RFE/RL on condition of anonymity that there is little chance that the bloc, which has long been split over how to deal with Russia, will meet any of the requests in the foreseeable future. The official said the EU is aware the Georgian parliament appears to be forcing the government's hand, threatening to formally declare the presence of Russian troops in South Ossetia illegal next month. Such a development would drastically complicate any settlement talks.
The deputies of the European Parliament listening to Bezhuashvili today appeared sympathetic.
Alfred Gomolka, a senior German Christian Democrat on the European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee spoke for many when he identified the EU's splits vis-a-vis Russia as a serious weakness.
Gomolka said Russia has tried to put political pressure on its neighbor before, but that the ongoing gas disputes underline the gravity of the situation.
An EU official told RFE/RL on condition of anonymity that there is little chance that the bloc, which has long been split over how to deal with Russia, will meet any of the requests in the foreseeable future.
"[But] now this whole matter has become more acute, and therefore we should, on the one hand, make it very clear that the EU does not even allow the attempt to be made to drive a wedge between its different member states," Gomolka said. "The EU can and will respond in a single voice."
The recent disruption of Russian gas supplies to Georgia was the other major concern expressed by Bezhuashvili.
Asked by European deputies about claims made by Georgian officials that Russia itself might be behind the series of explosions in North Ossetia that cut gas deliveries and some electricity supplies to Georgia, Bezhuashvili said he has no such evidence.
But, he stressed, Tbilisi finds the circumstances surrounding the disruptions extremely suspicious.
"Certainly, [I am not making a] final judgment [as to] who is behind it, but there are many, many coincidences, you know, and I really don't know why exactly yesterday morning a technical pumping station on [the] Azerbaijani-Russian border was broken," Bezhuashvili said. "I mean, on the Russian side. I don't know, maybe its technical, but [there are] too many technical [problems] at the same time."
Bezhuashvili said Georgia had been receiving limited amounts of gas from Azerbaijan until then. He said Tbilisi has decided to accept an offer of emergency deliveries from Iran, adding that the Georgian Energy Minister traveled to Tehran today.
Bezhuashvili also sought EU support for and investment for existing and planned oil and gas pipelines from Central Asia that cross the Caucasus -- and bypass Russia.