German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier is in Tbilisi at the start of a three-day trip intended to jump-start the peace process in breakaway Abkhazia.
Steinmeier is acting as the coordinator for the five-member UN Friends Group, a grouping of Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and the United States that is trying to resolve the conflict.
In Tbilisi, Steinmeier explained the goals of his trip at a joint press conference with Georgian Foreign Minister Eka Tkeshelashvili.
"For a long time, Germany has been trying to foster peaceful solutions of conflicts that exist in the region -- solutions which would be based upon the principle of Georgia's territorial integrity," Steinmeier said. "As the country which presides over the Group of Friends of the UN Secretary General, we bear a special responsibility, and it is precisely considering this function that we, together with our friends, want to contribute to resolving the situation."
Tkeshelashvili welcomed Steinmeier's efforts. "The negotiation process that is underway in Tbilisi today, and which, naturally, will continue within the format of [the group of] friends [of the UN Secretary General], will be extremely significant in guiding us to jointly form a vision, a plan, which will be able to really carry out a peace process that would be oriented toward results in Georgia. Therefore, once again, I welcome the efforts which our German colleagues are so vividly demonstrating," Tkeshelashvili said.
From Tbilisi, Steinmeier is due to travel to the Black Sea city of Batumi for talks with the Georgian government and opposition figures. He is then scheduled to visit Abkhazia, where he will meet leaders of the separatist region. Steinmeier winds up his trip in Moscow for talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov before returning to Berlin on July 19.
Hopes For A Settlement
Tensions between Georgia and Russia have escalated markedly in recent months over Tbilisi's bid to join NATO and Moscow's support for two separatist provinces, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Both broke away from Georgia in the early 1990s.
Georgia claims recent explosions in and near Abkhazia are part of a Russian plan to annex the breakaway regions. Russia counters that Georgia is preparing to take them by force.
Germany has drawn up a three-stage plan to settle the Abkhaz conflict, and Steinmeier's trip aims to get all sides to agree to the initial steps.
Speaking to RFE/RL's Georgian Service, Uwe Halbach of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, said there are currently several different peace plans for Abkhazia under consideration at the international level. "The United States made a proposal about deploying an international police force," Halbach said. "And Germany recently came up with this three-step plan. In the first stage it envisions confidence-building measures and bringing the conflicting parties back to the negotiating table. The second stage foresees economic reconstruction. And only in the third stage does it seek to deal with the conflict itself and address the issue of Abkhazia's status."
The plan also calls for approximately 250,000 Georgians who were displaced by the conflict to return to Abkhazia. Abkhaz separatist leaders have rejected that part of the plan.
David Bakradze, the speaker of Georgia's parliament, welcomed Steinmeier's visit, but said talk of implementing the plan was "premature."
Russia's Interfax news agency quoted Abkhaz leader Sergei Bagapsh as saying he could not even "consider the plan," adding that "we do not intend to discuss Abkhazia's political status with anyone."
Russia, meanwhile, is trying to get Georgia and Abkhazia to sign a pledge not to use force. But the Western powers want such a pledge linked to the return of Georgian refugees to Abkhazia.
Speaking at a press conference in Moscow on July 17, Lavrov criticized the idea of link the demands. "Yesterday these efforts were blocked by the firm refusal of our Western partners to demand the immediate signing of a non-aggression agreement. Our Western partners are trying to link this demand with the signing of documents on the return of refugees. This is totally unrealistic at this stage," Lavrov said.
Georgia, for its part, says it is committed to not using force, but says signing such an agreement with Abkhazia could constitute a de facto recognition of the region's independence.
Georgia, with U.S. backing, is also trying to internationalize a Russian-dominated CIS peacekeeping force in Abkhazia and supplement it with an international police force.