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UN: Georgian Finance Minister Draws Attention To Abkhazia, Russia, And Terrorism Issues

Georgia's government used the United Nations General Assembly's special session on children to issue another reminder to the international community about its unresolved conflict with separatist Abkhazia. Foreign Minister Irakli Menagarishvili says the Abkhazia dispute and the country's difficult economic transition have hampered the development of the country's children. He talked with RFE/RL about the need for a political solution to what he called "one of the main pains" of his country.

United Nations, 13 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- In nearly every major United Nations conference of recent years, top Georgian officials have stressed the link between their own country's arrested development and the unresolved conflict with breakaway Abkhazia.

Foreign Minister Irakli Menagarishvili made the point again on 9 May, appealing to world leaders not to be indifferent to the conflict. In an interview later with RFE/RL, the foreign minister said the children's conference was an appropriate forum to revive concerns about Abkhazia.

"There are up to 50,000 young citizens of my country forcibly expelled from their houses, and their future -- as well as the future of the entire country -- depends very much on what kind of support Georgia will be rendered by the world community," Menagarishvili said.

An estimated 200,000 Georgians fled Abkhazia after separatists gained de facto independence in 1993 following battles with Georgian forces. The displacement of those Georgians has caused social and economic strains for a government still struggling to enact democratic and free-market reforms.

The United Nations oversees the stalled Georgian-Abkhazian peace process and, along with Russia, provides peacekeepers to monitor an area separating Abkhazia from the rest of Georgia.

Earlier this year, UN officials unveiled the final draft of a document setting out the distribution of powers between Georgia and Abkhazia on the basis of the province remaining a part of Georgia. It is intended to serve as a starting point for talks between the Georgian government and Abkhazian separatist leaders.

Menagarishvili told our correspondent he has held a number of meetings on the sidelines of the children's conference aimed at advancing the Abkhaz peace process. He met on Thursday with the U.S. and French ambassadors to the UN, as well as UN Undersecretary-General for Peacekeeping Jean-Marie Guehenno.

He said he hopes to meet by the end of this month with Valerii Loshchinin, Russian President Vladimir Putin's new envoy for mediating a solution to the Abkhaz conflict. Menagarishvili also said he does not rule out a high-level meeting this summer between Abkhaz and Georgian representatives. Turkey and Ukraine have offered to host such a meeting.

The key, he said, is to begin the difficult process of discussing a separation of powers between Georgia and Abkhazia. "We understand perfectly well that this is a very complex and difficult issue, but at the same time, it's also obvious that this is a main component of the peace process. We have to start it as soon as possible."

In a report to the UN Security Council last month, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan also called for the urgent start of talks between the two sides, citing concerns about the potential for new violence to flare up.

Menagarishvili expressed the same concern, saying that his government does not have full control over armed groups based in Georgia which have attacked Abkhaz positions. "There are certainly a number of uncontrolled armed groups and this very phenomenon is unfortunately very much common in various conflict zones. That's why we are insisting on getting this peace process out of stalemate because [in] trying to solve just elements of the complex problem, you will definitely fail."

Efforts at forging a new political process have been further complicated by Russia's actions in the region. Russia deploys 1,800 peacekeepers in the area but has provided de facto protection to Abkhaz separatists.

Last month, Russian helicopters landed about 80 troops in the upper Kodori Gorge in what Russia said was an ordinary deployment of peacekeepers. But the UN mission in Georgia called the Russian maneuvers "aggressive and combative" and called on the leaders of the peacekeepers to withdraw quickly. Georgian authorities reacted angrily and ordered the Russians to leave, which they did in short order.

Menagarishvili said Russia remains a crucial partner in the overall quest for a solution to the Abkhaz conflict, but he said there must be limits to Russian involvement. "We cannot and will not allow anybody to conduct military actions on our soil. Unfortunately, this [deployment] was the idea suggested by the Russian side. We have been forced to refuse."

The foreign minister said there appear to be differing opinions in Russia on how to conduct policy with Georgia. The Georgian government's decision earlier this year to accept U.S. help in training security forces brought about varying reactions in Russia. After an initial critical reaction by the Russian Foreign Ministry, Putin said the presence of U.S. military training personnel in Georgia would be "no tragedy." Menagarishvili said there are some in Russia who do not respect Georgia's right to make sovereign decisions.

"It's crystal clear that a good neighborly relationship with Russia is a kind of imperative for our statehood. On the other hand, it's also the truth that there are certain forces in Russia that fail to tolerate Georgia's independence," Menagarishvili said.

The United States is training military and law-enforcement officers, as well as four battalions of Georgian troops. Georgia sought the training mainly to help its forces in the Pankisi Gorge, an area along Georgia's border with Russia where armed militants from Russia's breakaway Chechnya region have reportedly operated.

Menagarishvili said Georgia appreciates the U.S. help in training its forces in the Pankisi Gorge and the new attention it has received in this new era of antiterror sensitivities.

But he said the international campaign against terrorism must not be limited to seeking out the Al-Qaeda network. The foreign minister said it is important for the international community also to focus on resolving "frozen" conflicts such as in Abkhazia, because of their potential to destabilize regions.

"The main point is to eliminate the sources of instability, sources of this violence, hatred. And those so-called frozen conflicts represent one of the, I would say, main groups of such sources," Menagarishvili said.

Menagarishvili follows up his visit to the United Nations with a visit this Wednesday to Reykjavik, Iceland, for a meeting of the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council. The 46-member council is a forum for consultation and cooperation between NATO member countries and their cooperation partners, such as Georgia.