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Abkhazia, Backed By Moscow, Rejects German Peace Plan

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier with his Georgian counterpart, Ekaterine Tkeshelashvili, in Tbilisi
Steinmeier was continuing his shuttle diplomacy late on July 18 with a trip from the South Caucasus to Moscow for further talks.

Abkhaz separatist leader Sergei Bagapsh has already dismissed the plan, which is aimed at resolving the separatist region's conflict with Georgia's central government in Tbilisi.

Bagapsh said Abkhazia would not discuss any peace proposal until Georgia removed its Interior Ministry forces from the Kodori Gorge, the only part of the breakaway region that is controlled by Georgia.

Bagapsh, who said he planned to submit his own counterproposal, spoke to reporters after his meeting with Steinmeier.

"We kept our positions unchanged -- we and the [German foreign] minister -- because we think that there are agreements that have been adopted. We are in favor of not violating these agreements -- something that, in fact, Georgia has done in Kodori Gorge -- but rather of complying with them," Bagapsh said. By the way, the issue of refugees is also very clearly addressed [in these agreements]."

Steinmeier chairs the five-member UN Friends Group -- comprising Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and the United States -- which is trying to resolve the long-standing Abkhazia conflict.

A key element in chief German diplomat's plan is the return of hundreds of thousands internally displaced persons (IDPs), uprooted when the pro-Moscow region broke from Georgia following a war in the early 1990s. In exchange, Georgia is being asked to sign a pledge not to use military force to take the breakaway province.

Abkhazia and Russia have both rejected allowing the displaced persons to return, and have instead insisted that Georgia sign the pledge not to use force as a precondition for the talks -- something Tbilisi refuses to do.

Speaking to reporters on the evening of July 17, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili fiercely criticized Russia for opposing the Western proposal to allow the estimated 250,000 Georgian IDPs to return to Abkhazia.

Saakashvili made his comments at a briefing in the southwestern Georgian city of Batumi, prior to a meeting with Steinmeier.

"This is a political statement and needs to be thoroughly analyzed," Saakashvili said. "It is very disturbing. Today, they [the Russian Foreign Ministry] said they were opposed to displaced persons returning to Abkhazia. This was in response to Western pressure that they must return. I would like to say that the displaced persons will return to Abkhazia. And we will make this happen together with the international community. It is not appropriate for any capital in the world, and certainly not for Moscow, to make such a barbaric decision."

Saakashvili added that Tbilisi considers Moscow to be a "partner" but complained that Russia's state-controlled media was vilifying Georgia.

Saakashvili stressed that a cease-fire was in place and that Tbilisi has no intention of using force to retake Abkhazia.

"Our major weapon for self-protection is not tanks, planes, or cannons -- we will never be able to compete in this regard with those who threaten us, and we still have to think about the ability to defend ourselves as a state," Saakashvili said. "Our major weapon is that we are a successful democratic state. Now attempts are under way to discredit this image of Georgia. But I think it is already too late to do so."

In an interview with RFE/RL on July 18, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Matthew Bryza said he found worrying the joint Moscow-Sukhumi refusal to allow the displaced Georgians to return, adding that he hoped that it was "just posturing."

"That is the absolutely essential bargain that must be struck to move the peace process forward," Bryza said. "So we are quite worried when the parties -- or when Abkhazia, echoed by Moscow -- say they won't now agree to that bargain, which we've talked about for years, it makes me think that somebody wants to scuttle this effort by the UN Friends, and by the German foreign minister, not to mention by the U.S. secretary of state."

After leaving Abkhazia, Steinmeier was scheduled to briefly return to Batumi and then fly to Moscow for meetings with Russian officials, including Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and President Dmitry Medvedev.

Steinmeier's visit is part of a wave of diplomatic activity surrounding Abkhazia. On July 9, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a high-profile visit to Georgia where she warned Russia against escalating the conflict.

Tensions between Georgia and Russia have risen markedly in recent months.

Georgia claims that a series of recent explosions in and near Abkhazia are part of a Russian plan to annex the breakaway region. Separatist Abkhaz officials and their patrons in Moscow have countered that Georgia is behind the blasts.

The United Nations Security Council is scheduled to convene on July 21 to discuss a Russian violation of Georgian airspace, which occurred a day before Rice's visit. The incident, in which four Russian fighter jets carried out a 40-minute flight over the pro-Moscow separatist region of South Ossetia, caused Tbilisi to recall its ambassador from Moscow and question Russia's role as a peacemaker.
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