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Georgia: Foreign Minister Hails South Ossetia 'Breakthrough'

Georgian Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili (epa) BRUSSELS, May 16, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Georgian Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili visited European Union headquarters in Brussels earlier this week. In an interview with RFE/RL correspondent Ahto Lobjakas, he said that Tbilisi believes it has achieved a "breakthrough" in relations with separatists in South Ossetia.

RFE/RL: To start with the most recent developments, one of South Ossetia's two rival separatist leaders Dmitry Sanakoyev addressed the Georgian parliament on May 10. How important was that event in terms of Georgia's attempts to recover its separatist territories?

Gela Bezhuashvili: It is indeed a breakthrough. This is a point [of view] that is shared by not only the leadership or executives, but it is shared by the broader spectrum of political forces in Georgia, and this is the most important thing. It is a breakthrough, it is the first time the former separatists -- who fought back in 1992-1993 on [the other] side of the barricade -- said 'enough is enough.' [Sanakoyev has] collected significant support from the local population, both Georgian and Ossetian. [He] legitimately represents the Ossetian population, having a vision [and] expressing himself very clearly -- what he wants, how he sees the future of his people. It is indeed a breakthrough. If you compare Dmitry Sanakoyev [to de facto South Ossetia President Eduard] Kokoity -- who is surrounded by Russian nationalists, [and has] nothing to do with Ossetia or [the] Ossetian ethnos or Ossetian culture at all -- you will see more legitimacy in than Kokoity.

RFE/RL: So where does this leave Kokoity in your eyes? Are you not going to talk to him at all, even if that were possible?

"The political engagement of the EU has proved to be a successful exercise. The dominant negotiating power of Russia needs to be equalized by an equally important partner."

Bezhuashvili: No, no, we've said from the beginning we will be talking -- this is an inclusive process. We will continue to talk with Kokoity if he wants to talk, no doubt. For the last month or two, there was an attempt [by] the Georgian leadership, from different forces -- opposition parties, [the] ruling majority, executives -- to reach out to Kokoity and say 'Let's meet and let's discuss.' We've been denied access [and told] 'No, we don't have anything to talk about with you.' [But] the doors are still open.

RFE/RL: What Georgia is doing in the Kodori Gorge in Abkhazia right now, is this something similar -- an attempt to set up a rival local power structure next to the separatist regime?

Bezhuashvili: No, [there is a] difference here. All conflicts are different and those on the territory of Georgia, they are also different. [A] legitimate government of Abkhazia exists since the conflict started, since 1992, [or] 1991. The only difference is that they've been stationed in the capital of Georgia, in Tbilisi, and then they themselves decided to move to Abkhazia, and they've chosen Kodori because it's the only part that the Georgian government controls. [It's that] simple, so it's not that similar to what is happening in the Tshinkvali region, [in] South Ossetia.

RFE/RL: And what do you expect from the EU at this stage when it comes to these two conflicts?

Bezhuashvili: The political engagement of the EU has proved to be a successful exercise. I mean that the dominant negotiating power of Russia needs to be equalized by [an] equally important partner and player.

RFE/RL: But the EU has still not agreed to join the Joint Control Commission for Ossetia.

Bezhuashvili: No, no, of course not. I'm talking about the relevance of the EU to be a player and it's a process [that needs] the engagement of the EU first -- and then the engagement of Russia, from a positive perspective. The EU's role here is twofold. One, the EU engages in the [conflict-resolution] process itself, and second, the EU debates with Russia, within existing formats, the framework for a settlement of the conflicts in Georgia. So this should be part of the agenda of the EU-Russia dialogue.

RFE/RL: Have you got assurances from the EU in the course of your visit to Brussels that the EU will raise the Georgian issues at the summit meeting with Russia in Samara on May 18?

Bezhuashvili: Well, it is not about the assurances. My mission here was to update EU leadership on the issues of Georgia and certainly it's in my interest, and I asked [the EU] to put these issues on the agenda. Whether they will [do so] and whether there'll be enough time, I don't know.

Pro-Georgian South Ossetian leader Dmitry Sanakoyev (InterPressNews)

RFE/RL: Will the recent announcement by Russian President Vladimir Putin that Russia may suspend its implementation of the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty have any impact on Georgia and the presence of Russian troops in the country?

Bezhuashvili: It requires certain analysis and we do this analysis [of] how this might affect [us]. Every country does it, the [necessary] risk assessment [after the] Russian declaration on the CFE. CFE is a good arms-control mechanism, a very unique one for our part of the world, so we care about it. We are worried about the statement of Russia, as other members of the international community are worried, although it was not unexpected for us that Russia has declared this moratorium on the CFE, because they've signaled previously as well that they are not happy with the attempt, basically, to link CFE ratification with the legal commitments [resulting from the] Istanbul summit of [the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe] in 1999 [according to which Russia agreed to remove its troops and equipment from Georgia and Moldova].

RFE/RL: And you've had no signal from Russia that this might affect the withdrawal of Russian troops from Georgia by 2008, agreed between the two sides separately?

Bezhuashvili: No, no everything concerning Georgia goes based on the timetable we have agreed on. So we have no complaints [and] we fulfill our obligations in this respect, [there are] no problems.

RFE/RL: There have been reports that the United States may want to position certain parts of their missile-defense system in the Caucasus. Is this something you can comment on?

Bezhuashvili: No, this is not part of our agenda, not part of our internal agenda or our external agenda, we are not part of any consultations, or any process about this. Any misinterpretation on this, or speculations on this issue are absolutely unacceptable. We are not part of it.

RFE/RL Caucasus Report

RFE/RL Caucasus Report

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