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Georgia: Despite Turmoil In Tbilisi, Envoy Signals Progress On Abkhazia Front

The United Nations envoy for Georgia, Heidi Tagliavini, says some aspects of the Georgian peace process with Abkhazia are making progress despite unsettled political situations on both sides. Tagliavini pointed to new efforts by the international community to facilitate the return of Georgian displaced persons to Abkhazia. Georgia's UN ambassador agreed there have been some positive developments but again accused Russia of undermining the process by forging direct ties with Abkhazia.

United Nations, 13 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Amid continuing political turmoil in Georgia, the UN Security Council has heard a somewhat upbeat appraisal of the peace process involving the separatist republic of Abkhazia.

Georgia and Abkhazia remain far apart on the central issue of the province's status, but efforts on a number of smaller, practical issues appear to be gaining momentum.

Chief UN envoy Heidi Tagliavini briefed the Security Council on 12 November and afterward told reporters of a series of initiatives focused on the Gali district, near Abkhazia's border with the rest of Georgia.

Gali was home to about 90,000 Georgians before the war with Abkhazia, which ended 10 years ago. The district now has a population that ranges from 20,000 to 50,000 Georgians.

The United Nations is trying to establish security guarantees there and build trust between the two sides in the area. Tagliavini said Abkhaz and Georgian officials took a UN-sponsored fact-finding trip to Bosnia and Kosovo last month and gained some lessons about postconflict reconstruction and security reform that could be useful in Gali.

"I would say this has been an eye-opening visit for both sides. All these activities are taking place against the background of a internal situation that is not easy, so I think we have gone quite some way," Tagliavini said.

Georgia's parliamentary elections earlier this month were marred by allegations of massive fraud in favor of parties supporting President Eduard Shevardnadze. In Abkhazia, meanwhile, internal dissent has caused the reshuffling of the self-styled government several times in the past year.

Tagliavini expressed the hope that Georgia's problems do not cause prolonged distraction from the Abkhaz peace process: "I would say the political situation right now is unclear. And that can, of course, have an impact on the peace process in the sense that minds may not be really totally dedicated to whatever efforts the UN or the sides could put into the peace process."

The UN envoy said her mission's day-to-day efforts are focused on ensuring the safe return of displaced persons and she outlined a steadily growing UN role.

A group of 20 UN police experts has begun arriving in the Gali district to begin monitoring the security situation. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has been working on transitional arrangements for returnees and next month the UN Development Program will study economic rehabilitation of Gali.

The current president of the UN Security Council -- Ambassador Ismael Gaspar Martins of Angola -- told reporters after a closed-door meeting that there appeared to be momentum going into high-level talks set to take place soon in Geneva. It will be the third round of talks this year on Abkhazia involving envoys from Security Council members Russia, the United States, France, Britain, and Germany.

"We hope that with the special way the special representative has been handling the situation in Georgia we are likely to see also some progress on the ground," Martins said.

Georgia's UN ambassador, Revaz Adamia, told RFE/RL there was clear progress on efforts to safeguard the return effort to Gali. He also said he was encouraged by the efforts of high-level Security Council representatives -- known as the Friends Group of the Secretary-General -- to move the peace process forward.

"This Geneva process is somehow going on and the Friends are eager to have this Geneva process going and somehow be result-oriented rather than just a process in itself," Adamia said.

But Adamia raised concern about other developments. He sent the Security Council a letter yesterday repeating Georgian protests against what he said were the resumption of Russian rail links between Sochi and Sukhumi and the issuing of Russian visas for Abkhaz citizens.

An agreement earlier this year between Shevardnadze and Russian President Vladimir Putin created working groups that were to address the issues of restored rail links in tandem with improved conditions for returning displaced persons. Adamia said there has been no improvement in conditions for displaced persons while preparations have moved ahead for rail connections.

Separatist Abkhazia, which is not recognized internationally, relies heavily on Russia for economic contacts. Russia has repeatedly expressed its support for Georgia's territorial integrity but has declined to press Abkhaz leaders to accept UN peace documents calling for Abkhazia to remain part of Georgia.