|Disagreements Persist Over Georgian Territories|
|Friday, 12 June 2009|
By MARC CHAMPION
Disagreements between Moscow and the West over the status of two Georgian territories Russia has controlled since winning a brief war last year are threatening to force the withdrawal of international observer missions there.
Negotiations this week in New York aimed at agreeing on terms to renew the mandate for United Nations monitors in one of the territories, Abkhazia, failed to break the deadlock, according to an official familiar with the process.
Moscow objects to language in the draft resolution that would reaffirm Georgia's territorial integrity and call for all sides to abide by the terms of an Aug. 12 ceasefire that requires Russian troop withdrawals, Western diplomats say.
The UN Security Council is due to vote on the mandate renewal Monday. The Security Council could then vote to temporarily extend the current mandate, which requires only tacit agreement to controversial language concerning Georgia's territorial integrity.
"But there is no guarantee," there will be an extension, said Eka Tkeshelashvili, secretary of Georgia's National Security Council.
Similar issues have caused the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to call a time out on talks to renew the mandate for its mission to Georgia, which includes monitors for South Ossetia.
The OSCE mission is packing its bags and will close, unless there is a breakthrough by June 30, according to people familiar with the matter. OSCE monitors haven't been allowed back into South Ossetia since the war.
Russia accused Georgia of starting the war in South Ossetia in August, when President Mikheil Saakashvili ordered an attack on the Russian-backed separatist capital Tskhinvali, claiming that a Russian invasion was imminent.
Russia's military intervened massively, claiming genocide, and temporarily occupied large swathes of the country.
Moscow later withdrew its forces to within the enclaves of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. But Moscow also recognized the two territories' claims to independence, a move Georgia has described as de facto annexation. Russia says the territories can't be expected to return to Georgia after being attacked in the early 1990s, and in South Ossetia's case again last year.
Only Nicaragua has joined Moscow in recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent countries. Russia, however, says its recognition has invalidated the August ceasefire, which required all sides to withdraw their forces to positions before the conflict. Russia is currently building military bases in both territories, including at an airfield and a deep water naval port in Abkhazia.
A spokesman for Russia's mission to the United Nations declined to comment on continuing negotiations. Western diplomats say Russia doesn't seem to necessarily want to drive the monitors out of Abkhazia, but is digging in hard over the language.
Georgian leaders, however, say a U.N. acceptance of Russia's position on the ground would be too high a price to pay to keep an international presence. "This is all we have—a very firm international recognition of Georgia's territorial integrity, and a universal international recognition of Russia's obligation to withdraw its forces," says Ms. Tkeshelashvili. Accepting a U.N. resolution without that language would "erode the only strength we have," she said.
Loss of the international missions would leave no independent observers to monitor military movements, ceasefire breaches or the treatment of civilians remaining in the two territories. A European Union mission monitors areas of Georgia outside Russian control, but has been denied access to Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
The latest report on the Abkhaz mission last month documented movements of Russian heavy armor into and out of the U.N. Observer Mission in Georgia's inspection zone in Abkhazia, and documented a murder and a mass hostage-taking. The report also said it found no evidence to support a Russian claim that Georgia had moved 2000 special-force troops into the area.
Moscow appears willing to play hardball. When Russians and Georgians met in Geneva to continue talks last month, the Russian delegation walked out saying it wouldn't return unless the U.N. adopted acceptable language in a report by the Secretary General ahead of the mandate renewal for Abkhazia, according to two people familiar with the talks.
When the report was published soon afterward, it broke from previous U.N. documents by not referring to Abkhazia and South Ossetia as parts of Georgia. It also didn't mention the need for compliance with the ceasefire. Georgian officials were furious, publicly accusing U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon of giving way to blackmail. The UN denied that charge in a statement, which said the report was drafted "to avoid unnecessary politicization of the debate among members of the Security Council."
—Joe Lauria at the United Nations contributed to this article.
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