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Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Russian peacekeepers 'staying put' in Georgia

By announcing Russia's intent to keep its troops in former Soviet republics, pressure has been added to the already strained relationship between that country and Georgia.

By Sergei Blagov for Eurasianet (28/06/06)

Russian President Vladimir Putin insisted on 27 June that Moscow will maintain its peacekeeping forces in former Soviet republics regardless of "provocations." The announcement is widely seen as a preemptive move, given that the Georgian parliament is soon expected to vote on whether to demand the withdrawal of Russian peacekeepers in the separatist territory of Abkhazia.

Putin’s comments seem sure to worsen already tense relations between Russia and Georgia. Russia maintains peacekeepers in four areas – Tajikistan, the Trans-Dniester region of Moldova, and Georgia’s Abkhazia and South Ossetia territories. "We will continue our peacekeeping mission despite open provocations we often encounter," the state-controlled RIA Novosti news agency quoted Putin as saying. The timing of Putin’s comments left little doubt that he was talking mainly about the presence of Russian forces in Georgia.

Under terms of a resolution adopted in October 2005, the Georgian parliament is due to evaluate the role of Russian peacekeepers in Abkhazia by 1 July. Given the poor state of bilateral relations, many political analysts in Moscow and elsewhere believe Georgian legislators could make a formal demand for the replacement of Russian troops with an international peacekeeping force. If such a vote does indeed occur, and Russia refuses to honor it, some experts worry about a heightened risk of armed conflict.

A meeting between Putin and Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili on 13 June failed to make any headway in resolving numerous sources of bilateral tension. Since then, Russian media outlets have broadcast and published a bevy of reports portraying Saakashvili as a dishonorable negotiating partner. Gleb Pavlovsky, a Kremlin-connected analyst, went so far as to allege that Georgia would try to stoke an armed confrontation in either Abkhazia or South Ossetia during the upcoming G-8 summit, scheduled for mid-July in the Russian city of St. Petersburg.

Russian officials remained highly critical of Tbilisi. On 16 June, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov dismissed a Georgian accusation that Moscow was hampering the resolution of "frozen conflicts." He said Tbilisi’s rhetoric was undermining bilateral relations, adding that Georgian officials had failed to honor obligations under several inter-state agreements. "When we hear appeals to change the format of the peacekeeping operation against the backdrop of broken agreements and Tbilisi’s refusal to sign a statement on peaceful conflict resolution, we cannot regard this as a sincere desire to resolve these conflicts," Lavrov said. The foreign minister went on the praise the professionalism of the Russian peacekeepers. "Only the restraint of peacekeepers and their commanders helps avoid bloodshed," he said.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said 14 June that the peacekeeping troops would not leave Georgia, claiming that a viable security alternative did not exist. "The peacekeepers’ presence is the principal restraining force in the region." Ivanov said.

Also on 14 June, the leaders of Abkhazia, South Ossetia and the Trans-Dniester regions signed a joint security declaration. The declaration echoed Ivanov’s comments, stating that "there is no alternative - and will not be any - to the presence of the Russian peacekeepers." If Russian peacekeepers withdrew from any of the three territories, the trio of separatist regions would form a collective peacekeeping force of their own, according to the declaration.

Saakashvili has made the reestablishment of Georgia’s territorial integrity the top political priority of his administration. But efforts to negotiate an end to the Abkhazia and South Ossetia conflicts have made no tangible progress in recent months. Saakashvili is expected to discuss conflict resolution measures with US President George W Bush when the Georgian leader visits Washington for talks, scheduled for 5 July.

The Abkhaz leader Sergei Bagapsh cautioned recently that Sukhumi would cease participating in the peace process if the Georgian parliament calls for the withdrawal of Russian peacekeepers. He also said that Abkhaz troops would be deployed if Russian peacekeepers departed. "We are capable of protecting our state and our citizens," the region’s news agency, Apsnipress, quoted Bagapsh as saying.

EurasiaNet (www.eurasianet.org) provides information and analysis about political, economic, environmental, and social developments in the countries of Central Asia and the Caucasus, as well as in Russia, the Middle East, and Southwest Asia. The website presents a variety of perspectives on contemporary developments, utilizing a network of correspondents based both in the West and in the region. The aim of EurasiaNet is to promote informed decision making among policy makers, as well as broadening interest in the region among the general public. EurasiaNet is operated by the Central Eurasia Project of the Open Society Institute.

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