Time for negotiations is running out, Georgia says
Pressure builds for Georgia on whether it allows Russian troops on its territory
Brussels -- The time for negotiations in Georgia's dispute with Russia over the breakaway region of Abkhazia is running out, and Georgia will soon have to decide whether it can still allow Russian troops on its territory, Georgia's foreign minister said on Wednesday.
"The time frame is very restricted in one way. The situation has escalated already in a way that positive changes are extremely necessary now," Foreign Minister Eka Tkeshelashvili told journalists after meeting NATO ambassadors in Brussels.
"Is it logical for us to still give our legal consent to Russia's military presence under the mandate of the peacekeeping operation... which is not any more a peacekeeping operation per se?" she asked.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Wednesday called the overnight arrest of four Russian peacekeepers accused of illegally transporting weapons to the Georgian side an "inadmissible provocation".
Medvedev held telephone talks with his Georgian counterpart Mikhail Saakashvili on Wednesday, the Kremlin said.
But Tkeshelashvili brushed off the detention as a "small incident."
Georgia has agreed to postpone any decision on rejecting Russia's peacekeeping troops while international partners such as Germany, France, Britain and the United States "engage in discussions" with Moscow, but if the talks bring no results, the "only tool" left to Georgia will be to reconsider its consent, she said.
Germany, which in April emerged as the chief opponent within NATO of Georgian membership of the alliance, has particularly intensified its diplomatic involvement over the issue, she said.
"We are thankful for the leading, so to say, from the German side, that we see now in this process. It has been very clearly communicated to us that Chancellor Angela Merkel herself takes it on a very high political level to seek progress," she said.
As a minimum, talks should lead to the immediate withdrawal of some 400 Russian railway repair troops posted to Abkhazia, and a commitment not to implement a presidential decree establishing ties with the breakaway region, she said.
If Georgia were to withdraw its consent from the peacekeeping mission, it would leave Moscow with the options of withdrawing its troops from Abkhazia, or leaving them there and risking being seen internationally as an illegal occupier.
Abkhazia fought a separatist war against Georgia in 1992. A ceasefire agreed in 1994 saw Russian peacekeepers deployed in the province with Georgian consent under the mandate of the post-Soviet bloc, the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).
But tensions have risen sharply over Georgia's aspiration to join NATO. In mid April, just two weeks after NATO leaders agreed that Georgia should join the alliance one day, then Russian president Vladimir Putin decreed that Russia should open legal links with Abkhazia - the first time that the Kremlin has taken such a stance.
Russia sees Georgia's aspiration as a threat to its own security.
Then, on May 31st, Russia ordered some 400 railway repair soldiers into Abkhazia in a move which Georgian officials and Western observers condemned as a breach of the 1994 ceasefire agreement.
Georgia sees their work as preparing the infrastructure for possible large scale military deployments.
"If this policy continues, by the end of the summer they will have completed all physical work necessary for the completion of the annexation (of Abkhazia)," Tkeshelashvili said.
Georgia wrote to the CIS requesting consultations on the mandate for the peacekeeping force, but has not yet received a reply, indicating that "any contemplation that the CIS can be a forum for negotiations is dead," she said.
However, she stressed that Georgia would only seek a "legal and peaceful" solution to the crisis.