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Georgia: President Supports NATO Air Campaign; Draws Parallels With Abkhazia

Moscow, 11 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze says he favors the West's role in Yugoslavia and the NATO air campaign. He also says Georgia may some day join the 19-nation military alliance.

Shevardnadze's comments are surprising, given the differences between NATO and Georgia's neighbor Russia over the air strikes and Georgia's still strong reliance on Russia in solving its own ethnic problems in Abkhazia.

In a recent interview with RFE/RL's Russian Service, the Georgian President called ethnic cleansing the worst evil of our time and said that any operation taken to fight it is justified:

"I believe any action undertaken against ethnic cleansing and genocide is justified. If the international community confirms that Yugoslavia has been engaged in ethnic cleansing, then force must be used, justice must be re-established and people must be returned to the places where they lived before being forced out."

Shevardnadze, who enjoys widespread respect in the West for his positive role as Soviet foreign minister in the late 1980s, says he has his own vision of the way out of the Kosovo crisis.

"[Yugoslav President Slobodan] Milosevic must withdraw his army, the Yugoslav army, from Kosovo. An international armed contingent must enter the region. Fighters and armed Kosovars must disarm. Immediately after the arrival of the international armed force, refugees can start coming back and talks on the political status of Kosovo within Yugoslavia can begin. Probably some amount of time --two to three years-- will be necessary for the difficult process of pulling out the Yugoslav army and bringing in international forces while people return. A temporary administration, possibly an international one, may be needed. This is a possibility if the situation [proves] difficult. But I think there is no other way out."

Analysts say Shevardnadze's comments on Kosovo reflect a strong desire to obtain international help in resolving Georgia's conflict with the separatist region of Abkhazia and its own problem of ethnic cleansing.

During a 1992-93 war, some 10,000 people were killed in the breakaway region. Abkhaz separatist leaders have rejected an offer of autonomy within Georgia and say they want full independence. They have not yet allowed some 150,000 ethnic Georgian refugees to return to their homes in the region.

"For me, when I form my own point of view on Yugoslavia, the Abkhazian example has a particular influence. I know what ethnic cleansing means, what genocide is --when the majority of a region is thrown out only because they are Georgians or because they are Jewish or Armenians and do not support a separatist regime. There is no more serious evil in our time. I condemn separatism that usually provides the basis for those occurrences and, obviously, I condemn genocide and ethnic cleansing."

Russia has 1,500 peace keepers in Abkhazia, but has been unable to broker a political settlement between Tbilisi and Sukhumi. Shevardnadze says the presence of the Russians is frequently more a hindrance than a help toward reaching a solution.

Still, as ineffective as Russian peacekeepers have been in ensuring ethnic Georgians can return to their homes, Shevardnadze concedes that any NATO intervention to settle the conflict in Abkhazia is equally unlikely. Nor is any United Nations action likely, because it would require approval from the organization's Security Council, especially from permanent Council member Russia.

"Concerning NATO's participation [in a settlement in Abkhazia], I do not think this is very likely. The events in Yugoslavia obviously influence the problem. Also, in the absence of the appropriate decision by the United Nations' Security Council to conduct such an operation on Georgian territory, including Abkhazia, we would not allow it. I believe that only the UN Security Council's decisions carry legal weight. And this procedure is not an easy one. In order to achieve it, a consensus of all the Security Council's permanent member states is required. I am not sure that Russia would endorse such a decision."

The question of Russia's role in a settlement with Abkhazia is a delicate one for the Georgian leadership. This month, the deadline expired on a Georgia-Abkhazia agreement on returning Georgian refugees to their homes. Many Georgian observers say now that any further stay of Russian peacekeepers is questionable.

Russian and Georgian officials also agreed six months ago on a withdrawal of Russian forces monitoring Georgia's borders with Russia and Turkey. Yesterday, Russian guards began pulling out of Abkhazia, turning over responsibility for the borders to Georgians. Russia will turn over full responsibility for the frontiers to Georgia by next month.

But Russia is expected to maintain peacekeepers to separate Georgian and Abkhazian forces in the breakaway region. Separatist Abkhazian leaders oppose any Russian troop withdrawal and say the move will strengthen Georgian control over the region.

Shevardnadze believes new consultations with Russia are needed before a final decision is taken on whether to order the peacekeepers out.

He says that, if the Abkhazian side is ready to let refugees return to their homes in some districts within the old borders, then Russian peacekeepers should remain and monitor the procedure. But, he adds, if Abkhazian authorities do not agree, then Georgia has the right to insist on a withdrawal.