RFE/RL: Some people are saying that the police operation in the Kodori Gorge has intensified the situation between Tbilisi and Sukhumi, irritated Moscow and others, including some leaders in the North Caucasus. Do you think this could hinder the peace negotiations between Georgia and Abkhazia?
Matthew Bryza: No, I don't think it needs to at all hinder the peaceful negotiations between Tbilisi and Sukhumi. I think that if the Georgian government continues the operation the way it's been begun, in accordance with international agreements, executed with great care to make sure that tension remains as low as possible through contact between Tbilisi and Sukhumi and if the Georgian government demonstrates its ability to take care of the needs of Georgian citizens in the Kodori Gorge, I think this could actually contribute to stability in the long run.
And I think this operation, by eliminating an organized criminal gang that was really creating a terrible situation for the local inhabitants in the Kodori Gorge -- a place where they hadn't had any significant efforts to fight crime -- I think it underscores how important it is to have an international policing unit or international policing force in Abkhazia -- maybe not so much in Kodori, but for certain in the Gali region, where there are similar problems in terms of serious criminality, which then prevent the return of IDPs [internally displaced persons].
RFE/RL: You mentioned the police forces. What did you mean exactly?
Bryza: Well, we meant in the Gali district in particular, there is serious criminality and because of the level of crime internally displaced persons are unable to return to the Gali district -- and those are ethnic Georgians. The CIS peacekeeping force that's in place there has a different mandate. Its mandate does not include fighting crime, so there is a lack of a capability to create the conditions, the secure conditions, free from crime, that allow IDPs to return. And what I'm saying now is there was a similar situation in Kodori, where there was lawlessness. In this case, the Georgian government is eliminating the lawlessness and restoring the rule of law. In Gali, that's not happening.
RFE/RL: On a broader issue, the Georgian parliament recently adopted a resolution on the CIS peacekeepers in Abkhazia. Has the issue of the possible replacement of the CIS peacekeepers been discussed by the U.S. State Department? Or did the Georgian government ask the State Department to help solve this issue, to replace the peacekeepers there?
Bryza: That's not really an issue for the United States. The government in Tbilisi, the authorities in Sukhumi, they need to talk through -- along with the United Nations and, of course, those who are participating in the CIS peacekeeping operation, which includes Russia, of course -- they need to talk through a solution. The Georgian government, the Georgian parliament, the Georgian people have expressed their sovereign desire to have what is recognized by my government as Georgian territory, free from CIS peacekeepers. Again, it's not up to us to come up with a solution. What I am saying, however, that there is a gap, a hole, in the abilities of the authorities to fight crime in this particular area of Gali and elsewhere -- and there needs to be an additional capability -- and we're saying an international police force.
RFE/RL: Through the UN?
Bryza: We've been talking about doing it through the UN, yes. We haven't said it would be a replacement for the CIS peacekeepers, but a complement, an additional capability.
RFE/RL: Did you discuss how big this police force would be?
Bryza: No, there'll be a fact-finding mission, I think, in the next few weeks coming from the United Nations that will examine what is needed and then I think will probably make a recommendation about numbers.
RFE/RL: What do you think will be the next step in Georgian-Abkhaz relations. I mean the work of the Coordination Council [an umbrella structure set up in 1998 under the aegis of the UN to promote direct talks between Georgian and Abkhaz government officials on everyday issues.]
Bryza: The next step would be first of all to meet. Then the Coordination Council would -- and it's really not for me, from the U.S. government, to say what the Coordination Council should do. But in a general sense I think what needs to happen, it's important for the government of Georgia to consolidate its ability to take care of the needs of the people in the upper Kodori Gorge, and then the Coordination Council and everyone participating in it needs to reestablish the sort of dialogue you talked about in your first question.
The two sides need to be in constant contact to reduce the level of tension, to make sure no one miscalculates, and stumbles into a more serious dispute or conflict. And then I think the sides, as I said, I hope they can work through a way to develop an international policing force.
RFE/RL: You came here at a moment when interest toward the U.S. approach on the Kodori Gorge operation was quite high. There have been plenty of negative opinions about this operation. Maybe it's misunderstood or something like that. Did you come here to help the Georgian people understand the Georgian government better because you came and said 'Well done, guys, that's a good operation going on but keep doing it better.' So was that the aim of your visit here?
Bryza: No, not at all.
RFE/RL: To help the Georgian government with public relations?
Bryza: Not at all. I am here in this region as a co-chair of the OSCE's Minsk Group for mediating in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and helping the parties come up with a just and lasting settlement. I just happened to be nearby and couldn't resist coming to Georgia.
Actually, I want to be clear, I'm not saying "Good job, guys," and that's not why I'm here. That's not my message. My message is, so far the operation seems to have been conducted well. We haven't made an assessment as to whether or not there were any violations of the 1994 cease-fire agreement. We haven't said if there were violations or if there weren't, as we don't have the capability to make such an assessment.
What I was saying was that, if indeed, this operation was conducted in accordance with international law, and if it continues in the same direction, and the Georgian government shows it can take care of the Georgian people in the upper Kodori Gorge, and if tension remains at a low level, then this will be a very successful operation. So instead of saying it has been good, I'm encouraging the Georgian government to keep going in this same direction.
By the way, I'd like to add, we're hoping there can be progress in reducing tension and moving toward a political settlement in South Ossetia. I just wanted to say a word about that. There needs to be progress on a political settlement in South Ossetia, just as we've worked on Nagorno-Karabakh to create a political framework. There is no such framework yet that's on the table in South Ossetia. There's been a lack of movement, frankly, on the South Ossetian side. The Georgian side has made a proposal, a very promising proposal that's on the table -- there's been no response.
The Georgian side has taken unilateral steps to demilitarize, there's been no positive response. What's happened now with the Zemo Larsi (Verkhny Lars) border crossing [which Russia closed unilaterally three weeks ago without warning for unspecified repairs] is a significant increase in tension, makes life hard for Georgians, makes life hard for Armenians, and so we call on the Russian side to open that border crossing immediately, because it was closed in violation of the agreement that we understood was on the table for a 90-day notification.
Also, we believe that the time has come for there to be joint monitoring of the Roki Tunnel, the other border crossing, that's not a legal crossing, because right now there's no way for the Georgian government to participate in the monitoring of that tunnel. We frankly are worried about what can move through that tunnel. We don't know what's going through there, but we know what moves through the region: arms, radioactive materials.
We know in South Ossetia there's counterfeiting of American dollars taking place, moving through that area. It's a national-security interest of ours to have that stop. And we believe as well that there ought to be monitoring of the OSCE throughout all of South Ossetia. So it's not the same as all of Nagorno-Karabakh, but in general we need to have a similar process getting toward regulation and resolution of a conflict in South Ossetia as in Karabakh.
President Putin at a Kremlin meeting in April (epa)
PUTIN SPEAKS OUT: During a January press conference, Russian President Vladimir Putin said there is a need for "universal principles" to settle "frozen" conflicts in the CIS. His comments came against the background of impending talks on the future status of Kosovo, which many predict will grant it a form of "conditional independence" from Serbia and Montenegro. As an ally of Serbia, Moscow has consistently opposed the idea of Kosovar independence. Putin's remarks suggest he may be shifting his position, but only if the principles applied to Kosovo are also applied to frozen conflicts in the former Soviet Union. If Kosovo can be granted full independence, he asked, why should we deny the same to Abkhazia and South Ossetia? (more)