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Caucasus: Conflicts Threaten Democracy

London, 14 November 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Georgian Foreign Minister Irakli Menagharishvili said yesterday that unresolved conflicts in the Caucasus impede the development of further democracy in the region.

He said the region has to resolve the problems which remain in Chechnya, Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Menagharishvili spoke in London of the eve of the latest round of talks in Geneva with a delegation from Abkhazia, Georgia's breakaway Black Sea province, aimed at resolving their long-running conflict.

He said the main issue for his government is to find a peaceful solution to the Abkhazia problem which upholds the principle of Georgia's territorial integrity within its internationally-recognized borders while meeting the interests of the population of Abkhazia.

Abkhaz separatists drove Georgian troops out the autonomous province four years ago after fighting that killed more than 3,000 people and caused an exodus of thousands of refugees.

Menagharishvili said Georgia has proposed that Abkhazia should remain a subject of a federal state but should be granted the highest degree of autonomy with its own anthem. constitution and parliament.

Menagharishvili, who is on a four-day official visit to London, told the Royal Institute of International Affairs, that finding a solution to the Abkhazia problem is "a difficult political task."

He said the problem amounts to a "litmus test" of the capability of international institutions to cope with what he called "the challenges of aggressive separatism while respecting borders." The U.N. and other international bodies have been trying to promote a settlement.

RFE/RL correspondent notes there is heightened western interest in a stable Georgia, which is set to be a key route for oil and gas deliveries from the new fields on the Caspian Sea whose huge reserves are second only to those of the Persian Gulf. The giant multinational, British Petroleum, is one of the biggest investors in the projects.

Menagharishvili said he welcomed British support for the principle that Abkhazia is an indivisible part of Georgia while recognizing that the problem is one that falls within the European sphere of interests.

He also said that the Caucasus is set to become "an oil and gas superpower" because of the reserves being developed mainly by Azerbaijan, and because the region will be "the shortest and most economical way to transport its rich natural resources to Europe."

He also said the end of the Cold War means the Caucasus has been able to resume its historical and geographical position as a bridge between Central Asia and Europe. Menagharishvili said: "For the eastern part of the Caspian, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, there are prospects for a Transcaucasian outlet for their export of their oil and gas." He said there are "really exciting times ahead for our region."

Menagharishvili noted that the south Caucasus countries, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia, suffered a series of conflicts and economic and political crises after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

But he said the international community should be aware that a stable environment is now being created in the region. He said opinion throughout the Caucasus is that neither peace nor stability can be acquired without close cooperation among regional neighbors.

He said this approach recognizes that a peaceful Caucasus will be possible only if the interests of the north Caucasus -- that is, Russian territory including Chechnya -- are observed. He said: "This coincides with the interests of Russia for the stability and peace of the region."

He said a defining moment came last year when the presidents of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan met together with Russian President Boris Yeltsin and issued a declaration on peaceful cooperation.

This declaration reflected an initiative originally put forward by Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze which stressed that stability and normalization is best achieved through mechanisms that promote mutual respect among the many peoples that live in the region.

Menagharishvili said the principles governing the Peaceful Caucasus Initiative include the recognition of the authority of states within internationally recognized borders; guaranteed security for refugees from ethnic conflict to return to their homes; and respect for human rights, particularly those of national minorities.

The Caucasus region is home to many thousands of refugees from the conflicts in Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia and Chechnya.

Menagharishvili said the presence of refugees in all the Caucasus states is "painful." He said: "We are trying to create conditions so that these people can return to their homes in peace and security."

He said the idea of the peaceful Caucasus is "increasingly seen as the only way to replace confrontation and destitution with mutual trust and prosperity. But it has to be recognized that hostility has to be overcome and much has to be done to turn these ideas into reality."

Menagharishvili also said that regional cooperation means it is important to promote the success of international investment -- a constant refrain in his speech on the "Caucasus -- A Georgian view."

His repeated message was that the Caucasus are important to Europe because of their geographical position as a gateway to central Asia, and their new significance as a vital energy producing area.

He said: "The Caucasus should be viewed not only as a geographical entity but as a geopolitical unit which is an indivisible part of Europe and which is part of Europe's interests."

Menagharishvili leaves Britain on tomorrow.