Russia-Georgia Talks Falter

By Patrick Goodenough | October 16, 2008 | 4:51am EDT

Georgian men raise a national flag in a village near the border with Georgia’s breakaway province of South Ossetia on Thursday, Oct. 9, 2008, after Russian forces withdrew from the area, back into the separatist region (AP Photo)

( – Talks between Russia and Georgia broke down shortly after they began on Wednesday, and the sides will not try to talk again until after next month’s U.S. election.
The talks at the United Nations offices in Geneva were the first since the August war, and they were designed to follow up and build upon on a cease-fire deal brokered by French President Nicolas Sarkozy on behalf of the European Union (E.U.).
At the center of the tensions are disagreements between the two countries over the status and future of the breakaway republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Georgia says they fall within its sovereign borders.
Russia invaded its small neighbor after Georgian forces launched an offensive on Aug. 8 against pro-Moscow separatists in South Ossetia. The brief war ended with Russian forces occupying both South Ossetia and Abkhazia as well as parts of Georgia beyond the two regions. Since then, Russia has pulled its troops back into the two breakaway regions, where it says they remain by invitation.
Moscow’s official recognition of the two regions’ independence on Aug. 26 has drawn virtually no support in the international community, but it insisted that representatives of South Ossetia and Abkhazia attend and be full participants in Wednesday’s talks, at both working group and plenary sessions.
Georgia objected strongly, and E.U. and other international facilitators tried to mediate.
Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili said the Russian delegation had “walked out,” while Russian deputy foreign minister Grigory Karasin accused Georgia of thwarting the talks by refusing to participate in a plenary session with Abkhaz and South Ossetian representatives, Interfax reported.
E.U. envoy Pierre Morel, citing “procedural difficulties,” said all parties had decided to suspend the meeting, and that new talks were set provisionally for Nov. 18.
The U.S. State Department, represented in Geneva by Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried, said in an earlier statement that it understood delegates from the two regions “may take part in informal discussions outside the plenary.”
Speaking in Brussels, where he is holding meetings with E.U. leaders, Saakashvili said the Russian behavior showed that it had no interest in any diplomatic process at this stage.
“This is exactly how the Soviet Union acted in the worst years of the Cold War,” he said. “We will continue our consistent struggle for Georgia’s de-occupation and for the withdrawal of Russian troops from the occupied territories.”
A key issue to have been addressed at the Geneva talks centered on the number and placement of Russian forces remaining in the region.
The Sarkozy plan required Russia to withdraw forces to positions they held before the fighting broke out. Since earlier conflicts in the 1990s, Russia deployed “peacekeepers” in both regions and, in the State Department’s view, a return to the pre-Aug. 8 status quo would mean Russia should have no more than around 500 troops in South Ossetia and 2,500 in Abkhazia.
But the Russians say they plan to keep almost twice that number – a total of about 7,600 troops – in the two republics. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told a briefing Tuesday that this was “probably the most important outstanding issue” and would be “front and center” at the Geneva meeting.
The breakdown of the talks will further delay efforts to ensure that Russia meets this key cease-fire pledge.
Russia’s mass circulation Komsomolskaya Pravda daily reported Monday that Russia has signed agreements to establish military bases in Abkhazia and South Ossetia by December, and would deploy 3,800 troops in each base.
The troops will no longer have the status of peacekeepers because, Russia says, they are now there in line with bilateral agreements with the two regions.
Because they don’t have peacekeeper status, the paper said, “international monitoring agencies will hence have no grounds to perform checks.”
Russian peacekeepers in Abkhazia for the past 14 years were officially there under a mandate of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), a grouping of Russia and other Soviet successor states.
Georgia withdrew from the CIS in August to protest the Russian incursion. At a CIS summit in Kyrgyzstan last week, one of the decisions taken was to terminate the peacekeeping mission.
Vladimir Socor, a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation, says the mission all along was a Russian operation, with the CIS flag merely used as cover give it a multinational look.
The Russians maintained a pretense of being neutral peacekeepers between the Georgian and Akbhaz sides but in fact supported and helped to arm the Abkhaz forces, he wrote in the foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor.
“Georgian and other appeals to internationalize the peacekeeping format fell mostly on deaf, indifferent, or distracted ears in the West during all this time,” he said.
“Russia itself has ended its operation in its own way and timing and on its own terms, which are worse than ever from the West’s and Georgia’s perspective.”

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