Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has softened his earlier criticism of a German peace plan aimed at resolving the conflict between Georgia and its breakaway region of Abkhazia.
Lavrov said after talks with his German counterpart Frank-Walter Steinmeier late on July 18 that Berlin's initiative was "extremely helpful for looking for compromises and a way out of the crisis."
Lavrov previously said the German plan was a step in the right direction, but was "unrealistic" on the issue of the return of refugees.
Earlier in the day, Abkhazia's separatist leadership had rejected the plan as "unacceptable."
"The three-stage plan proposed by the German side, by Frank-Walter Steinmeier, for the resolution of the conflict is being discussed, and we believe that the conceptual approach is absolutely correct," Lavrov said after the two men met in Moscow.
Lavrov also said he and Steinmeier agreed that the work in the five-member UN Friends Group should be intensified.
Steinmeier chairs the group -- comprising Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and the United States -- which is trying to resolve the long-standing Abkhazia dispute.
The first stage of the German plan entails a formal pact between Georgia and Abkhazia abjuring the use or threat of military force, followed by the return to Abkhazia of those Georgians who fled during the 1992-93 war and who remain displaced.
The second stage, which would begin in early 2010, focuses on post-conflict reconstruction. The third and final stage would include addressing the issue of Abkhazia's status within the republic of Georgia.
Abkhazia's de facto leader, Sergei Bagapsh, has said Abkhazia will not discuss any peace proposal until Georgia removes its Interior Ministry forces from the Kodori Gorge, the only part of the breakaway region that is controlled by Georgia.
He was speaking to reporters on July 18 after a meeting with Steinmeier in Gali, Abkhazia.
"Until [Georgia] pulls out its troops [from Kodori Gorge], it is useless to speak about examining the other points of this agreement, which is fundamentally unacceptable to us," Bagapsh said. "And that is why we are working on our own alternative agreement."
Abkhazia and Russia have insisted that Georgia sign the pledge not to use force as a precondition for direct peace talks between the Abkhaz and Georgian leaderships -- something Tbilisi refuses to do.
In an interview with RFE/RL on July 18, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Matthew Bryza said insisting on such a precondition would make it "impossible for any negotiating partner to agree to the core elements of a bargain."
Steinmeier's talks with the Georgian, Azbkhaz, and Russian leadership came as tensions with Russia have soared in recent months over Tbilisi's bid to join NATO and Moscow's support for two separatist territories, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which broke away from the rest of Georgia in the 1990s.
Unrest increased further this month with a series of bombings in Abkhazia, which the Abkhaz leadership blamed on Georgia, and Moscow's admission that it had sent military jets on flights over South Ossetia.
"The positions of the two sides are still far apart from each other, but the escalation that has taken place over the past weeks and months should not lead us to stop our efforts," Steinmeier said after his talks on July 18. "Everybody, including the sides of the conflict and those countries which participate from the side of the group of general-secretary of UN friends, should find an alternative to violence."