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GEORGIA-RUSSIA: Talks Off to Uneasy Start

Gustavo Capdevila

GENEVA, Oct 15 2008 (IPS) - Talks to put an end to the conflict in Georgia came up against foreseeable difficulties due to the obstinacy of both sides, although at least the process has gotten off the ground, said a European diplomat who closely followed the opening of negotiations Wednesday.

The envoys to the meeting for the United Nations, the European Union and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) were able to overcome a few procedural difficulties and ensure a new meeting, the source, who asked not to be identified, told IPS.

The delegates from Russia and Georgia, the three brokers of the meeting, and the United States will meet again Nov. 18 at U.N. headquarters in Geneva.

The hostilities between the two neighbouring countries began on Aug. 7, when Georgia launched a military attack to regain control over the territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, where separatist forces had support from Russia.

The attack was repelled by Russian troops. The armed clashes, which were intense at times and claimed mainly civilian lives, came to an end on Aug. 12, after peace brokering efforts by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose country currently holds the rotating presidency of the EU.

Sarkozy’s diplomatic efforts secured the commitment by both sides to meet this week in Geneva to launch talks.

A French diplomatic source applauded the success of the peace brokering efforts, and stressed in particular that the United States had been relegated to a secondary role in the process.

The U.S. delegation to the talks has been led by Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Daniel Fried.

The main inconvenience in the sessions, as had been anticipated, emerged when Russia insisted that the representatives of South Ossetia and Abkhazia sit down at the negotiating table with the delegates of Georgia, which refuses to recognise the independence unilaterally declared by the two regions, which still form part of Georgia’s territory.

For that reason, the Russian delegation walked out of the plenary session Wednesday morning.

But in the afternoon, once that hurdle was apparently overcome, it was the Georgians who refused to sit down at the table.

These disagreements gave rise to a new round of verbal sparring between the two sides, with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili saying in Brussels that the Russian delegation had left the talks, and the head of the Russian delegation, Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin, replying that the Georgians were lying.

The three special envoys – Pierre Morel of the EU, Johan Verbeke of the U.N. and Heikki Talvitie of the OSCE – attempted to play down the frictions.

The brokers underlined the decision to hold another meeting next month, and promised to discuss procedural questions then.

Morel said “the process has started,” and Verbeke described the discrepancies over the participation by representatives of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as a “procedural incident” and said “the process is on track.”

For his part, Talvitie said “There was a clear commitment…to get the process of conflict resolution started. We have done it today. That is quite evident. We have encountered difficulties. This is also a fact. We already knew beforehand that this process was not going to be a very easy one.”

But the three envoys avoided referring in detail to the episodes that stood in the way of a meeting between all of the delegations, including the representatives of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, whose self-declared independence has only been recognised by Russia and Nicaragua.

Meanwhile, an International Court of Justice verdict was announced in the Hague in a case brought by the government of Georgia seeking compensation for alleged breaches by Russia of the 1965 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

The ruling by the U.N.’s highest court establishes that not only Russia but Georgia as well must refrain from sponsoring any act of racial discrimination.

The world court expressed concern for the populations in the areas affected by the hostilities unleashed by the Russian and Georgian forces. The reference includes citizens of Georgia, and from South Ossetia and Abkhazia as well.

The two sides declared themselves satisfied with the sentence. International law experts consulted in Geneva said they needed more time to study the ruling before expressing an opinion.

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