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Caucasus: Are Georgia And Abkhazia Headed For Peace Or War?

Prague, 30 September 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Two rounds of high-level talks last week created the impression that the Abkhaz and Georgian leaderships are determined to find ways of defusing tensions and seeking a solution to the problem of Abkhazia's status vis-a-vis the central Georgian government.

But parallel developments suggest that either these talks may have been a smoke screen, or that other forces are intent on thwarting any progress towards a settlement.

On September 22, Abkhaz Prime Minister Sergei Bagapsh and presidential envoy Anri Djergenia attended a session in Tbilisi of the economic committee of the Coordinating Council created last November under the auspices of the UN and the informal "Friends of Georgia" group of western ambassadors in Tbilisi.

Bagapsh and Djergenia also met separately with Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, who subsequently told journalists that "our negotiations are making progress, although slowly."

Shevardnadze also disclosed that Djergenia had handed him a letter from his Abkhaz counterpart Vladislav Ardzinba, who expressed concern at reports that Georgian forces are being concentrated close to the border with Abkhazia's southernmost Gali raion where, it was claimed, they intend to perpetrate terrorist acts in late September to mark the anniversary of Georgia's 1993 defeat in the war for control of the region. Shevardnadze said he is prepared to accept Ardzinba's invitation to meet with him personally in Sukhumi.

Two days later, on September 24, Georgian Minister of State Vazha Lortkipanidze, together with the Georgian ministers of security and internal affairs, traveled to Sukhumi for talks with Ardzinba, during which Lortkipanidze denied that Georgia is preparing for a new offensive against Abkhazia. But he did express concern that unspecified forces are preparing to launch new hostilities in Gali.

The Georgian "power" ministers and their Abkhaz counterparts made a tour of inspection of the Gali raion, and signed a protocol on the disengagement of forces along the Inguri River that forms the border between Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia.

The sincerity of the Georgian side's conciliatory approach is called into question, however, by a letter sent by Viktor Ilyukhin, chairman of the Russian State Duma Security Committee (and a hard-line Communist) to Ardzinba, a summary of which was published in "Nezavisimaya Gazeta/CIS" on September 23.

Ilyukhin claims that Georgia has concentrated up to 10,000 army and Interior Ministry forces in western Georgia, and, since August, has taken delivery of 300 tons of armaments from Ukraine, including two containers of grenade-launchers and 175 tons of 100 millimeter anti-tank shells.

Ilyukhin suggests that the Georgian leadership is desperate to bolster its image by regaining control at least over Gali raion in order to avoid a defeat for Shevardnadze's Union of Citizens of Georgia party in the 1999 Georgian parliamentary elections.

Speaking at a press briefing on September 25, Shevardnadze's press secretary, Vakhtang Abashidze, warned that unspecified Russian forces aim to export destabilization from the North Caucasus to Georgia. He said those forces would be backed Georgia's Communists, supporters of late President Zviad Gamsakhurdia and some groups of Georgian displaced persons from Abkhazia. Abashidze rejected Ilyukhin's allegations of an imminent Georgian offensive in Abkhazia as "absurd."