- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 16, 2008

TBILISI, Georgia | Boris Federov, a senior lieutenant in Russia´s 58th Army, says he doesn´t understand why he is commanding a checkpoint on the road from Tbilisi to Akhalgori in South Ossetia.

“I can´t tell the difference between Ossetians and Georgians. They´re the same to me,” he said.

His face is weathered, but when he smiles, you can see the boy behind the 25-year-old football fan´s face.

“This conflict ended the way it started. What was the point?” he asked.

The checkpoint that he commands is one of the key issues for discussion at talks Wednesday in Geneva about the future of Georgia´s two breakaway provinces, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. However, the talks ended almost as soon as they began.

A European Union official said the talks were being delayed until Nov. 18 because of “procedural difficulties.”

Russia tried to change the format of the talks several times before they began, said Georgian Foreign Minister Eka Tkeshelashvili. “It was definitely not a helpful approach.”

Many experts feared that Russia would exploit divisions among European Union members and prevent any substantive resolution.

The talks already suffered a setback Tuesday when they were downgraded to consultations rather than formal negotiations.

The difficulty was finding a way for representatives from South Ossetia and Abkhazia to participate acceptable to both Moscow and Tbilisi. Russia and Georgia fought a five-day war in August over the provinces.

South Ossetia and Abkhazia delegates were allowed to sit on working groups but not as official representatives of their de facto governments. That was apparently not sufficient for Moscow.

The discussions were called for under cease-fire agreements brokered by French President Nicolas Sarkozy on behalf of the European Union (EU). The organization is co-hosting the Geneva talks along with the United Nations and Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

EU members are divided over whether Russia has complied with cease-fire agreement’s withdrawal requirements, which call for “the full withdrawal of Russian peacekeeping forces from the zones adjacent to South Ossetia and Abkhazia to pre-conflict lines.” Russian forces left zones adjacent to the provinces but have not returned to pre-conflict lines.

Georgia wants “the full withdrawal of Russian occupiers from Georgia, the return of all refugees and the restoration of Georgia’s integrity to its internationally recognized borders,” Deputy Foreign Minister Grigol Vashadze told Interfax News Agency.

Zeyno Baran, director of the Hudson Institute´s Center for Eurasian Policy in Washington, expects Russia to drag out negotiations.

“If the talks are ongoing, it allows Russia to keep what it has established on the ground. And what they have on the ground benefits them,” she said in a telephone interview.

Russia also benefits because the European Union has not responded to the crisis with a unified front.

“Since the war, 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,” Ms. Baran said. Each country stands to benefit from continuing lucrative bilateral energy and business projects with Russia.

At the same time, Sweden, Poland, the United Kingdom and Baltic states have demanded that Russia fully comply with the cease-fire agreement.

Russia´s strongest weapon in Europe is energy. It supplies 50 percent of Europe´s natural gas and 30 percent of its oil, which gives Moscow great leverage over individual countries.

Western Europe wants closer business and energy relations with Russia and is afraid to upset Moscow, said David Smith, a former U.S. ambassador and director of the Georgian Security Analysis Center in Tbilisi.

Up the road from Lt. Federov of the Russian army, Akhalgori´s residents said they hope the European Union will hold Russia to the cease-fire agreement.

Many of Akhalgori´s Ossetians, who made up about 15 percent of the town´s prewar population, want the Russian and South Ossetian forces to leave, said Irina, an Ossetian woman who said she has lived in Akhalgori her entire life.

“Ossetians and Georgians - we have nothing to divide us. We´ve always lived together very well,” she said while standing in a Georgia-owned general store.

Like other residents, she would only give her first name out of fear of reprisal from the South Ossetian militia.

The town´s Ossetians have been left alone, but some have been beaten and intimidated for being friendly with Georgians, several residents said.

Running water has been restored, but the town is still without gas.

“We can´t even go into the forest to get wood because we´re afraid they´ve mined it, but we´re going to have to figure some way to get wood come winter,” said Shota, a middle-aged Georgian.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide