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Georgia: Planned Abkhazia Settlement Meeting Postponed

Prague, 11 November 1998 (RFE/RL) -- High level talks to make firm a partial settlement of Georgia's dispute with its rebellious Abkhaz province -- confidently predicted last month -- now appear less imminent.

Abkhaz presidential envoy Anri Djergenia seemed upbeat late last month, following discussions in Tbilisi with Georgian Minister of State Vazha Lortkipanidze. Djergenia said Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze and Abkhaz leader Vladislav Ardzinba probably would meet in the Abkhaz capital, Sukhumi, early this month. He said they would sign documents on resolving the aftermath of the Abkhaz conflict.

But Shevardnadze warned last week that not all details are ready. And Ardzinba since has suggested that the meeting might have to wait until later in the month.

Moreover, Revaz Adamia, Georgia's parliamentary Defense and Security Committee chairman, has expressed concern that a visit by Shevardnadze to Sukhumi might be risky. Adamia said that the Abkhaz authorities don't fully control the territory of Abkhazia, and that it would be more appropriate for Ardzinba to come to Tbilisi. Adamia said there were "forces," which he didn't name, that might seek to assassinate the Georgian president.

Whether those concerns are genuine, or merely a face-saving formulation for postponing a meeting, is not clear.

The documents awaiting signature are, first, guarantees of the non-resumption of hostilities and, second, a protocol on the return of Georgian displaced persons to Gali Raion along with Georgian economic aid for the rebuilding of Abkhazia's war-shattered economy. U.N., OSCE, Russian and CIS officials are to act as guarantors for implementation of the accords.

Shevardnadze and Ardzinba signed in August of last year what was hailed at the time as a landmark agreement not to use force to settle the dispute. But that pact failed to prevent an outbreak of hostilities in Gali in May of this year. Up to 36,000 Georgians had returned to homes abandoned during the 1992-1993 war. They were forced to flee a second time.

By contrast, the second document, which Djergenia and Lortkipanidze reportedly drafted jointly, resolves the contentious issue of a timetable for the return to Gali of ethnic Georgian displaced persons.

The Abkhaz leadership made that process contingent on the receipt from Tbilisi of funds for rebuilding the region's devastated economy. The Georgians insisted that they could not provide such funds until the repatriation process was underway. The United States provided an incentive to Georgia to sign such a repatriation agreement, promising $15 million towards the cost of rendering burned out Georgian dwellings habitable.

But the signing of the repatriation agreement may be torpedoed by minor details. In his weekly radio address last week, Shevardnadze conceded that not all the fugitives can return simultaneously, and that the process must proceed in stages. In that context, Shevardnadze put the number of potential repatriates at 300,000 -- a figure that considerably exceeds estimates by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees of the entire pre-war population of Gali Raion. If the Abkhaz are seeking a pretext to delay the signing of an agreement, that discrepancy could serve their purposes.

Even if the planned meeting takes place, the talks are not expected to touch on the single most important question dividing the two sides -- Abkhazia's status vis-a-vis the central Georgian government.