A high-level delegation of the UN Secretary General’s Group of Friends hailed Russian peacekeeping forces in Abkhazia as an “important stabilizing” factor in the conflict zone less than two months before the Georgian Parliament is scheduled to discuss the performance of the Russian peacekeepers, which are stationed in Abkhazia under the aegis of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).
Members of the delegation, which held talks with Georgian and Abkhaz officials on May 23-25, included German Foreign Ministry’s Ambassador-at-Large Dr Norbert Baas, who acted as coordinator of the group; French Foreign Ministry official Frédéric Baleine du Laurens; Russian Foreign Ministry’s Ambassador-at-Large Mikhail Bocharnikov; UK Special Representative for the South Caucasus Sir Brian Fall and U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs Matthew Bryza.
The delegation met twice with Georgian President Saakashvili during the visit. Talks with Abkhaz leader Sergey Bagapsh and with other Abkhaz officials were held in Sokhumi. On May 24 the Georgian President’s aide for Abkhaz issues Irakli Alasania also traveled to Sokhumi, where he met with Foreign Minister of the breakaway region Sergey Shamba.
The delegation of the Group of Friends, which held a press conference in Tbilisi upon conclusion of the visit on May 25, hailed both the Georgian and Abkhaz side’s willingness to undertake confidence building measures.
“There is a new willingness and new enthusiasm to have a real and concrete substantive discussion and this spirit of good will gives us hope that we can begin to move the two sides towards a more positive direction… We are trying to work out a mutual sense of security on both sides,” Matthew Bryza, the U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs, said at a news conference.
Coordinator of the group, German diplomat Norbert Baas said that the visit aimed at supporting the UN-led peace process in Abkhazia. The visit was scheduled after a recent UN Security Council resolution on Abkhazia was passed in March. Ambassador Baas said that during the talks with Abkhaz and Georgian officials the delegation underlined the importance of the principles outlined in the resolution.
“First of all it is the commitment of all the member states of the United Nations to the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Georgia… Secondly, to achieve lasting and comprehensive settlement of the conflict,” Baas said.
He noted that “the third important point” is that both the Georgian and Abkhaz sides “should make use of the existing mechanisms” in order to come to a peaceful settlement.
He reiterated the UN Security Council resolutions on Abkhazia and said that “the CIS peacekeeping force is currently playing an important stabilizing role in the conflict zone.”
“This was our view before the trip and it is our view after the return from Sokhumi and a stopover in Gali,” the German diplomat added.
He said that the issue was also discussed during the meeting with UNOMIG chief military observer “and he confirmed this view equally.”
“He [UNOMIG chief military observer] also commended the cooperation with the CIS peacekeeping forces,” he added.
“All of us share all of the views that Ambassador Baas has articulated,” U.S. diplomat Matthew Bryza said.
According to Alasania, Georgia has been holding intensive consultations with the Group of Friends over the possibility of changing the existing peacekeeping format for the last three months. But it seems that Tbilisi will fail to make any tangible progress in this regard before July 15, when the Georgian Parliament plans to discuss the performance of the Russian peacekeepers in Abkhazia, as envisaged by a resolution adopted by the Parliament last October. If the peacekeepers’ performance is assessed negatively, the Parliament should demand their withdrawal, according to the resolution.
A similar provision was envisaged by the Parliament’s October resolution in respect to the South Ossetian conflict zone. But following international calls to refrain from demanding the withdrawal of the Russian peacekeepers from South Ossetia, the Parliament adopted the so called “flexible” resolution in January, which gave the Georgian government the possibility not to demand the immediate withdrawal of the Russian troops from South Ossetia. The Georgian Parliament might adopt a similar resolution in respect to the Russian peacekeepers in Abkhazia as well.
The Group of Friends also underlined the importance of finalizing an agreement on the non-resumption of hostilities.
“We believe it is of utmost importance now that the package of documents to be adopted on the non-use of violence and on return of refugees and IDPs into Abkhazia and, first, to the Gali district,” German Ambassador Norbert Baas said.
The foreign diplomats also called for a high-level meeting between the Abkhaz and Georgian officials and hailed President Saakashvili readiness to hold talks with Abkhaz leader Sergey Bagapsh.
The Group of Friends called for the protection of the rights of the Georgian internally displaced persons whoi have returned to the Gali district and urged the sides to avoid military rhetoric.