Russia-Georgia peace talks delayed

The first direct talks since the August war were postponed until Nov. 18 due to a dispute over the role of delegates from the breakaway regions.

Dan Catchpole/The Christian Science Monitor
Checkpoint: Lt. Boris Federov (r.), tells EU monitors they cannot enter South Ossetia.

At his checkpoint along the road from Tbilisi to Akhalgori in South Ossetia, Russian Senior Lt. Boris Federov has orders to search cars and check passengers' papers. He waves most locals through, but when an SUV full of European Union civilian monitors arrives, he politely tells them they can't enter.

Lieutenant Federov chuckles as he watches the EU monitors awkwardly turn around on the narrow road.

Russian forces were supposed to leave South Ossetia by Oct. 10, and the checkpoint Federov commands was slated to be one of the key issues discussed at talks that were scheduled to begin on Wednesday in Geneva.

However, an EU official announced on Wednesday afternoon that the talks were being delayed until Nov. 18 due to “procedural difficulties.” The controversy arose over a row about how representatives from South Ossetia and Abkhazia would participate.

South Ossetia and Abkhazia delegates were allowed to sit in on working groups, but not as official representatives of their de facto governments. Russians, however, wanted delegates from the breakaway regions involved in a more official capacity. The talks came to a halt when Georgian officials objected. Russia and Nicaragua are the only countries that have recognized the regions as independent nations.

The meeting would have been the first direct talks between Russians and Georgians since their five-day war in August over Georgia’s two breakaway provinces, South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Meanwhile, EU delegates remain divided over how to deal with Russia over what’s seen as a less-than-complete withdrawal. Russia may try to exploit these divisions, say some regional analysts, even holding its energy resources over dependent European countries to prevent any substantive resolution.

"For Russia the best-case scenario is to delay any concrete decision that could be not in their favor," says Zeyno Baran, director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Eurasian Policy in Washington.

According to the Sept. 8 cease-fire agreement there must be a "full withdrawal of Russian peacekeeping forces from the zones adjacent to South Ossetia and Abkhazia to preconflict lines." Russian forces left these zones, but still occupy Akhalgori in South Ossetia and Kodori Gorge in Abkhazia, Both areas were controlled by Georgia before the war.

The United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe are cohosting the talks that are part of the EU-brokered cease-fire agreements that ended the war. Representatives from Abkhazia and South Ossetia will also take part in unofficial working groups.

The talks will be a test of the EU's ability to develop a unified foreign policy, says David Smith, director of the Georgian Security Analysis Center in Tbilisi. "The Europeans have to ask themselves, 'Do we want to allow our foreign-policy initiative to be swept under the carpet?'" he says.

As a number of EU countries are heavily reliant on Russian energy resources – Russia supplies 50 percent of Europe's natural gas and 30 percent of its oil – there are concerns that Russia may use this to leverage some countries.

"Germany, France, and Italy are all a lot more eager to get back to business as usual, and to see this Georgia business go away," says Ms. Baran, who explains that each country depends on energy and business deals with Russia. At the same time, Sweden and several Central and Eastern European states have demanded that Russia fully comply with the cease-fire agreement.

Up the road from Federov's checkpoint, Akhalgori's residents hope the EU will hold Russia to the cease-fire agreement.

"Ossetians and Georgians – we have nothing to divide us. We've always lived together very well," says a resident who withheld her name because she still fears reprisal from the South Ossetian militia.

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