UN Security Council diplomats say the recent leadership change in Georgia's separatist region of Abkhazia has further clouded the prospects for advancing the peace process between Tbilisi and Sukhumi. New talks are taking place this week at UN headquarters to try to find a way forward in the peace process.
United Nations, 10 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- UN-brokered efforts to advance peace talks between Georgia and its separatist region of Abkhazia remain at a virtual standstill and could be further complicated by the change in leadership on the Abkhaz side.
Two top UN officials briefed the UN Security Council yesterday on the Georgia-Abkhazia situation. Afterward, diplomats told RFE/RL that no immediate consensus was reached on how to move the peace process forward.
Some diplomats say the recent dismissal of Abkhazia's de facto prime minister, Anri Jergenia, has further complicated attempts to begin meaningful negotiations between Tbilisi and Sukhumi. They say it is unclear who Abkhazia's true representative is on the issue.
Representatives of the group of countries formed to facilitate the peace process, the Friends of the Secretary-General for Georgia, will meet today at UN headquarters. They will be joined by the two senior UN officials who briefed the council, peacekeeping chief Jean-Marie Guehenno and special envoy to Georgia Heidi Tagliavini.
The council nearly one year ago endorsed a document that calls for peace talks on the basis of Abkhazia's remaining part of Georgia but enjoying substantial autonomy. Abkhaz officials reject this. The region's newly named prime minister, Gennadii Gagulia, reiterated in comments last week that Abkhazia is committed to independence from Georgia.
In the absence of political talks, some council members proposed establishing a new series of confidence-building measures between the two sides.
Georgia's deputy UN ambassador, Gueorgui Volski, told RFE/RL that such measures could be helpful, but they should follow an agreement on political talks. "We're not against confidence building, rehabilitation of the [Abkhaz] economy, and significant movement towards implementation of the draft projects on rehabilitation of the economy of Abkhazia, but first we have to have something tangible towards political negotiations," Volski said.
Volski said the political process could receive a boost by greater involvement from the United States, which is in the "Friends" group, along with Russia, France, Britain, Germany, and Bulgaria.
A senior U.S. diplomat at its UN mission, Richard Williamson, is due to arrive today in Georgia for a series of talks with Georgian and Abkhaz officials through the end of the week.
Russia has at times represented Abkhaz interests in UN discussions, although it officially supports the UN document calling for Abkhazia to remain part of Georgia. Diplomats have said poor relations between Russia and Georgia continue to hurt the peace process. Those relations have worsened this autumn with Russian charges that Georgia allows Chechen rebels to use the Pankisi Gorge as a haven.
But Georgian authorities during the weekend carried out a series of arrests of exiled Chechens. They also extradited to Russia a suspect in the bombings of Moscow apartment blocks in 1999.
Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze said the security sweeps were aimed at "terrorists" seeking to destabilize the country. Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday welcomed the moves and signaled that they could mean an improvement in bilateral relations. "Georgia's special services have taken action and destroyed the most odious terrorists, including those who had perpetrated the apartment-block bombings in Moscow [in 1999]. One of them was captured and taken to Lefortovo Prison [in Moscow]. I hope this cooperation between the special services and law-enforcement agencies of Georgia and Russia will not only help us fight against terrorism but will also help gradually bring our relations with Georgia to a new, higher level," Putin said.
But no breakthroughs are expected anytime soon to resolve the Abkhaz issue. Russia last month responded to a Georgian request for an open Security Council meeting by circulating a request by Abkhaz authorities to have then-Prime Minister Jergenia speak. The request, widely opposed by members of the Friends group on the council, resulted in a decision to hold the meeting behind closed doors yesterday.
Diplomats told RFE/RL than an open council meeting on Georgia would have been counterproductive. But they say it is a crucial time for behind-the-scenes efforts to revive the peace process. As one diplomat said, the onset of winter usually subdues any hostilities in flash points like the upper Kodori Gorge, providing a calm period to restore political talks.