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Georgia: Rhetoric On Abkhazia Heats Up Ahead Of Presidential Talks

The EU's Benita Ferraro-Walder, speaking in Moscow, said Russian actions in Georgia could threaten stability in the region (AFP) A much-anticipated meeting between Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili is due to take place in St. Petersburg on June 6, on the sidelines of a two-day CIS summit. Many are looking to see if the talks will strike a warmer tone than earlier meetings between Saakashvili and Medvedev's predecessor, Vladimir Putin.

A phone call on June 3 between the two presidents was characterized as "friendly" by a spokesman of the Georgian Foreign Ministry. But the topic was a sensitive one -- Russia's unilateral decision to send 400 military troops to Abkhazia for reported railway repair work.

That decision violates current guidelines on Russia's peacekeeping mandate in the breakaway region. In an interview on June 3 with Reuters, NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer blasted Moscow for the move.

"The Georgians have not been asked. They have certainly not given their permission. They will not give their permission," de Hoop Scheffer said. "So, in other words, it is an escalating action by Russia, and I think Russia should de-escalate, and everybody, everybody should stay calm, be the voice of moderation, as the Georgians have been up until now, and I commend them for that."

Clear Contravention

The NATO chief said the deployment is a clear contravention of Georgia's sovereignty and territorial integrity and called on Russia to withdraw the extra troops promptly.

Russia has defended the military deployment, saying the work to repair railway traffic through Abkhazia is a "humanitarian action" that benefits all sides.

Moscow also says the decision is based on a 2003 agreement between Russia and Georgia to consider joint projects to restore the Abkhaz railway service. Tbilisi, however, says that deal explicitly forbade the involvement of Russian troops or any militarized units. Temur Iakobashvili, the Georgian minister for reintegration, said attempts by Moscow to portray the deployment as a mutual decision are false.

"Russia can't cite a single agreement in which Georgia would allow Russia to deploy military units to start any kind of reconstruction work -- in this case, on the railway," Iakobashvili said. "I can't be sure what we're dealing with here -- a deliberate lie, or an attempt to justify an act that was poorly thought through. I'd rather think that it's the latter. But that doesn't change the reality, which is that Russian engineering troops have illegally entered Georgian territory and must leave without delay."

Members of Abkhazia's de facto government have maintained their traditional pro-Moscow stance throughout the standoff, which grew hotter in April following an announcement by then-Russian President Vladimir Putin that Moscow was strengthening legal and trade ties with the unrecognized region.

'Rest Is Speculation'

Stanislav Lakoba, the secretary of the de facto Abkhaz government's Security Council, told RFE/RL's Georgian Service that there is no aggressive subtext to the railway project.

"In fact, the objective [of Russian railroad-construction troops in Abkhazia] is [to rebuild] a railroad, and that has to do with the Sochi Olympic Games, in keeping with existing agreements on the reconstruction of infrastructure in Abkhazia, but no more than that," Lakoba said. "The rest is speculation. You know, these are 400 unarmed people and their objective is basically peaceful."

Not everyone is convinced.

Tbilisi is determined to see the ouster of the new railway troops. It is also intent on forcing a change in the predominantly Russian composition of the Abkhaz peacekeeping unit installed as part of the cease-fire agreement that concluded a brief civil war in 1992-93.

The Georgian government appears to have won the support of the European Union in seeking an international replacement to the current peacekeeping force.

Georgian security officials last week confirmed the existence of a plan to replace the Russians with a joint civic police force employing both Georgian and Abkhaz local residents, and trained by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe or the European Union.

That plan will be on the table when the EU's foreign-policy chief, Javier Solana, travels to Tbilisi and Sukhumi on June 5 for talks aimed at a peaceful resolution of the standoff.

'Might Undermine Stability'

The EU's external relations commissioner, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, told deputies in Russia's lower house, the State Duma, in Moscow on June 4 that the EU is concerned that "Russian moves in Georgia in particular might undermine stability on Russia's southern border." She said the EU will argue for "an approach that fully respects Georgia's sovereignty and territorial integrity."

She told Russia's Interfax news agency on June 3 that Brussels supports the idea of "modified peacekeeping forces" in Abkhazia and a second breakaway region, South Ossetia.

Adding to the mix is Ukrainian Defense Minister Yuriy Yekhanurov, who was in Georgia on June 4 for talks on military sales. Ukraine is one of Georgia's main weapons suppliers; Yekhanurov's visit had sparked speculation that Kyiv might be preparing to contribute peacekeepers to a modified Abkhaz force.

The United States on June 3 reiterated its support for Tbilisi. In addition to a phone conversation between Saakashvili and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the U.S. Senate adopted a resolution condemning Russia's decision to establish direct links with Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

The resolution called on Moscow to revoke its actions and any further decisions encroaching on Georgia's territorial integrity. It also urged Georgia to abstain from rhetoric that could be seen as heightening regional tensions.

RFE/RL Caucasus Report

RFE/RL Caucasus Report

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