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Georgia: UN Envoy Hopes Abkhaz Status Talks Follow Yalta Success

UN officials have welcomed a recent agreement between Georgia and Abkhazia on confidence-sharing measures. But UN special envoy Dieter Boden says the unresolved status of Abkhazia needs to be addressed soon or it could become a source of instability for the whole Caucasus region. Boden spoke to RFE/RL's UN correspondent Robert McMahon about the latest developments in the unresolved conflict.

United Nations, 22 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- An agreement signed by Georgian and Abkhaz officials last week in Yalta did not appear to mark any major progress in ending their long-running conflict.

But UN special representative Dieter Boden, who attended the Yalta talks, says they gave an important boost to confidence-building measures between the two sides. Boden, who has been trying to advance the peace process for 18 months, says the Yalta talks had a new, more positive tone than previous meetings.

Boden told RFE/RL in an interview yesterday (Wednesday) that both sides brought large delegations to Yalta, including -- on the Georgian side -- representatives of people displaced from Abkhazia. He said this led to an exchange on the first day of talks between internally displaced Georgians and Abkhaz representatives that marked a new level of dialogue.

"[The meeting was] very emotional, but still in a way which was free of antagonism and hatred that we had formerly. So I do not overestimate [the talks], but I think this could be also a development that will enable us to tackle some of the more complicated issues that are still before us."

The Yalta talks ended with a pledge from both sides to renounce violence and safeguard the return of internally displaced people and refugees to Abkhazia. The agreement also called for a number of bilateral exchanges, including cooperation in the wine-making industry, promoting media exchanges, and organizing meetings of scholars from both sides.

But the key point of contention between the two sides -- Abkhazia's status -- was not on the agenda.

Abkhazia considers itself independent of Georgia and has held elections for president and local bodies, most recently on March 10. The United Nations, which has condemned the elections, continues to promote a formula that calls for a settlement of the political status of Abkhazia within Georgia.

The UN Security Council yesterday issued a statement stressing the importance of negotiations on the core political questions of the conflict. Boden, too, says that while confidence-building measures are important, it is crucial both sides commit to serious talks on Abkhazia's status to end eight years of impasse.

"As long as you have a non-recognized entity or state in the area, I think that the stability of the whole Caucasus is at stake. We think that this problem has to be tackled as soon as possible. Otherwise the whole peace process may be in jeopardy."

In a letter to the Security Council, released yesterday, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze asked the United Nations to draft a document setting forth the basic principles of what he called "constitutional competencies" between Georgian and Abkhaz leaders. He said once such a document is endorsed by the Security Council, it should become the basis for further negotiations between the two sides.

The council plans to hold a special session next month that will address progress in seeking a political settlement to the dispute.

In the meantime, Boden says, he has been trying to gain agreement from Abkhaz officials to ease the return of displaced Georgians to the Gali region near the border. Although hundreds of thousands of Georgians remain displaced, he noted, they have steadily been returning to Gali in the past 18 months. He estimates there are now 60,000 people living in Gali, compared to its pre-civil war population of 90,000.

Boden says those returning include whole families with small children, a factor that creates new demands on local infrastructure and the administration of schools. He says Abkhaz officials have only supplied school materials in the Russian or Abkhaz languages and he has been pressing local authorities to provide Georgian-language materials.

A far larger number of displaced Georgians from Abkhazia remain in camps under poor conditions. Any progress for those returning to Gali would have an impact on the fate of the other displaced. Boden says returning them to their homes is an urgent humanitarian matter.

"That's a tragedy of the conflict that we have these 250,000 to 300,000 -- that is the accepted figure of IDPs [that is, internally displaced people] and refugees that have to live outside of Abkhazia."

Security is a major concern. Boden says that 60 people were killed near the cease-fire line last year and that the situation between the two sides in the area remains volatile.

In the most recent incident, five Abkhaz police officials were wounded four days ago (March 18) when their checkpoint came under fire from a grenade launcher. News reports said three of them later died.

At Yalta, Abkhaz Prime Minister Vyacheslav Tsugba blamed Georgian guerrillas for an upsurge in attacks and expressed concern at what he said was the international community's failure to condemn the violence. Boden said it is not clear to what extent any organized groups in the border area are directed from Georgia. Boden also said organized crime activity has complicated security controls in the border zone.

"What we have in that Gali area and also the Zugdidi area is criminality, and you have smuggling of all sorts. So it's difficult to find out in detail what the background is of these armed attacks. I think it is a challenge for the law-enforcement organs of both sides to work closer together."

Boden says the new commander of the peacekeeping forces of the Commonwealth of Independent States, General Nikolai Sidorichev, has begun cooperating on "very promising lines" with officials of the UN Mission in Georgia. Sidorichev, who assumed his post about a month ago, commands 1,700 mostly Russian peacekeeping troops in the region. The UN mission has about 100 military observers.