- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 26, 2005

With fresh ethnic violence threatening the Caucasus, the United States has offered “concrete help” to Georgia in resolving its bitter standoff with Russian-backed separatists, said Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Nogaideli.

The Georgian leader said in an interview during a Washington trip this week that U.S. involvement was critical to ending the standoff over South Ossetia, one of two pro-Moscow ethnic conclaves inside Georgia that have resisted control by the central government.

Mr. Nogaideli said reasserting sovereignty over South Ossetia, which he characterized as a lawless enclave plagued by drugs and arms trafficking, will be his government’s “No. 1 priority over the next several months,” beginning with a peace plan to be presented to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

“We cannot keep this black hole in the middle of such a sensitive area,” Mr. Nogaideli said in the interview Tuesday. “It is in nobody’s interest — not Georgia, not the United States, not Russia — to maintain the status quo.”

He said Moscow has a greater interest in a deal in South Ossetia in light of the violence that has plagued Russian regions across the border — from the long conflict in Chechnya to the Beslan school massacre in September 2004 to a deadly uprising earlier this month by Islamic militants in the southern Russian city of Nalchik.

But Russia has resisted Georgian efforts to bring the United States and leading European powers into the South Ossetian dispute.

Mr. Nogaideli said Georgia is determined to resolve this issue peacefully and said he had received firm pledges of U.S. support in talks this week with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other senior administration and congressional leaders.

“We were offered concrete help and engagement from the U.S. administration,” he said.

U.S. officials, leery of being drawn too far into the Russia-Georgia standoff, were more cautious.

State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said Miss Rice discussed with Mr. Nogaideli ways to resolve the South Ossetian problem, but the United States is not planning a “new initiative” with Georgia.

U.S.-Georgian bilateral ties have improved sharply since the 2003 Rose Revolution that brought pro-reform President Mikhail Saakashvili to power.

Mr. Nogaideli said Georgia’s pro-Western foreign policy would not be affected by the public power struggle that resulted in the firing last week of Foreign Minister Salome Zurabishvili, a move that slightly delayed his Washington trip.

Mrs. Zurabishvili said she was the victim of Georgia’s ex-Soviet “old guard,” who are determined to undermine the Rose Revolution. Thousands rallied in her support last week in the largest street demonstration since the revolution.

But Mr. Nogaideli said the foreign minister was dismissed because she proved unable to work with the parliament, insulting lawmakers who criticized her performance.

“I have fought with parliament myself on many issues,” he said, “but I never ignored the prerogatives of the legislature.”

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