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Georgia: Troop Issue An "Irritant"

Washington, 14 May 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Georgian Foreign Minister Irakli Menagarishvili says the unsettled issue of Russian troops on Georgian soil has become an "irritating factor" in relations between the two countries.

Menagarishvili made the comment at a press conference in Washington Wednesday. He is in the U.S. on a week-long visit to follow up on agreements made by Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze and U.S. President Bill Clinton during their meeting last year.

Menagarishvili is accompanied by Chairman of the Parliamentary Defense and Security Committee Rezo Adamia and Chairman of the State Border Guard Department Valeri Chkheidze.

Menagarishvili says the military agreement to keep Russian troops on Georgian soil which was initialed, but not signed in 1994, has not been ratified by the Georgian parliament because conditions to fulfill the pact have not been met by Russia.

Zurab Zhvania, the chairman of Georgia's parliament, told reporters in Washington last month that the two main conditions of the Georgian-Russian military agreement are for Russia to assist in a successful resolution of the Abkhazia conflict, and provide a substantial weapons supply to strengthen Georgia's national army. Zhvania said that not even the "slightest progress" had been made on either issue.

But Menagarishvili says he is optimistic the situation will improve with the new Russian government. He says Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev will be in Georgia at the end of this month to discuss the military agreement.

Says Menagarishvili: "I have great expectations of closer cooperation with the new government."

In regards to U.S.-Georgian relations, Menagarishvili says America has played a critical role in the development of Georgian democracy by contributing more than $1 billion in aid through a variety of channels.

Menagarishvili says: "American-Georgian relations are a wonderful example of how the world's leading nation in terms of economic and political development effectively works on the development and independence of a small country and its democratic institutions."

Menagarishvili says the American role in helping Georgia obtain its independence has been "very significant." He says current U.S. assistance is primarily being put toward economic growth, and in particular the development of Caspian Sea oil and resources.

When asked about the problem with Abkhaz separatists, Menagarishvili says it is still "too early" to say that any decisive steps have been taken to resolve the crisis.

Abkhazia, a province on the Black Sea, declared its independence from Georgia in 1992. More than 300,000 ethnic Georgian civilians and soldiers were ejected from the region by separatists during a 13-month period of intense fighting.

Large-scale hostilities ceased in 1992 when Russian troops were deployed to the region to keep the peace. However, sporadic fighting and bombings have continued, heightening tensions in the region. Peace talks have faltered since Abkhazian officials will not retract their declaration of independence and are reluctant to allow ethnic Georgian refugees to return to their homes.

Menagarishvili says the plight of the refugees is the most "important and difficult" problem in the region, and one that must be addressed before the conflict can be properly resolved.

Menagarishvili says he also hopes the so-called "Geneva process" -- which calls for international and objective negotiators to assess the situation in Abkhazia -- will help improve matters. He credits Russia with playing a "significant and important role" in the process. Menagarishvili says he is most encouraged by the United Nations newly intensified involvement in the process, adding that international involvement regarding the situation in Abkhazia is "far greater" now than it was just one year ago.