As part of a growing Euro-Atlantic campaign to reduce tensions between Georgia and Russia over the breakaway region of Abkhazia, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza traveled to Sukhumi on July 25 to push for Abkhaz participation in international peace talks in Berlin. The trip is the second for the senior American diplomat since May.
The Berlin discussions, tentatively scheduled for this week, would take place within the format of the United Nations Group of Friends of Georgia (Russia, US, United Kingdom, France, Germany), currently chaired by Germany.
In July 26 remarks to reporters at the US Embassy in Tbilisi, Bryza described his meetings with de facto Abkhaz leaders, including Sergei Bagapsh, Sergei Shamba and Stanislav Lakoba as an "amazing day," but avoided commenting on the possible outcome of the talks.
Subsequent consultations were held in Batumi with Georgia's President Mikheil Saakashvili, State Minister for Territorial Reintegration Temur Iakobashvili, Defense Minister Davit Kezerashvili and Deputy Foreign Minister Giga Bokeria.
"Our goal now . . . is to try to bring the positions of Sukhumi and Tbilisi together and re-launch a vigorous settlement process to the Abkhaz conflict," Bryza told reporters.
Sukhumi is treading cautiously on the issue. In a statement released late on July 25, Bagapsh, Abkhazia's de facto president, said that while the territory was not against the Berlin talks, it would reject direct negotiations with Tbilisi without Georgia first withdrawing its forces from the Upper Kodori Gorge, a narrow strip of Abkhaz land still controlled by Tbilisi, and signing a non-use-of-force treaty. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
"The withdrawal of troops should be a condition for restarting negotiations, and not their topic," Lakoba, the Abkhaz Security Council chief, told journalists in reference to the talks, according to the Abkhaz news agency Apsnypress.
On July 18, the Abkhaz leadership requested further work on a peace plan proposed by German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, saying that it needed to better reflect Abkhaz concerns. [For background, see the Eurasia Insight archive].
In Tbilisi, however, Bryza state showed little tolerance for pre-conditions. Any attempt to meet Abkhaz demands needs to be balanced by Sukhumi's own attention to Georgia's demands, including the return of refugees and Internally Displaced Persons to Abkhazia, he indicated. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
"I cannot understand why there are not direct talks between the authorities in Sukhumi and Tbilisi right now," Bryza told reporters. "The Georgian government is ready and there should be no issue that is unacceptable for the talks to begin and there should be no pre-conditions at all."
"[I]f the partners are serious about the peace intention and getting closer to a settlement of the Abkhaz conflict, then they shouldn't put out any pre-conditions. And if they wish to just stall and play for time, they'll always come up with some excuse," he continued. "But we should keep our eyes focused on what we're all committed to, which is a peaceful settlement."
Elizabeth Owen is EurasiaNetÆs Caucasus News Editor, based in Tbilisi.