Talks on Russia-Georgia war seen as 'constructive'

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Officials from Russia and Georgia are cautiously welcoming the November 19 talks in Geneva, which marked the first time the warring sides have met since the armed conflict in early August over the separatist region of South Ossetia.

The talks may have accomplished little in terms of concrete solutions to the issues that continue to divide Russia and Georgia since the five-day war.

What was significant, however, was the simple fact that the parties actually met. Similar talks held in Geneva last month fell apart without the sides ever gathering in the same room.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin, who headed the Russian delegation, expressed confidence that challenges had been cleared away and that constructive dialogue was now possible.

"We managed to overcome the organizational problems that existed during the first meeting, which were being created artificially during the preparation and the holding of the first meeting, itself," Karasin said. "Now, we can look forward with confidence that we can resolve and address all pertinent issues on the table of negotiations."

The talks included not only Georgians and Russians but representatives from the United States, European Union, UN, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), as well as delegates from both of Georgia's separatist regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Russia, which recognized the regions' self-declared independence following the war, had lobbied hard for their representation at any postconflict meetings.

For now, however, the Abkhaz and Ossetian authorities retain a purely informal role.

Speaking in Washington on November 19, U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack welcomed the meeting and said it was a "positive step" that Abkhazia and South Ossetia had overcome objections to their status at the talks.

"Well, I think it was a first step. It was a follow-through on the agreement between [French] President [Nicolas] Sarkozy and [Russian] President [Dmitry] Medvedev," McCormack said.

"The first attempt at these discussions fell apart when the representatives from the areas of Abkhazia and South Ossetia walked out of the talks. There was a disagreement about who would be considered a full representative and have a seat at the table," he added. "So, it's a positive step that, now, these discussions have taken place."

Refugee, Security Concerns

Georgian officials had argued that any talks must include not only separatists, but also pro-Tbilisi officials from the breakaway regions. One such figure was Dmitry Sanakoyev, who heads the exiled pro-Georgian administration in South Ossetia.

Dmitry Sanakoyev said the atmosphere was "normal."Speaking in Geneva, Sanakoyev said the talks helped address one of the outstanding issues remaining from the war -- the safe return of tens of thousands of Georgian and Ossetian refugees displaced during the war.

"Most importantly, the meeting has taken place. And an agreement was reached at the meeting that we need to create security conditions both for the Georgian population and for the Ossetian population. The same is true for Abkhazia, the Gali district. Discussions on these issues will continue," Sanakoyev said.

"The atmosphere was normal," he added. "From the very beginning we refrained from any aggressive rhetoric toward each other. Of course, the Georgian side, the Russian side, the Abkhaz side, and the South Ossetian all have their own grievances, and we intend to discuss these issues at our future meetings."

In addition to the refugee question, officials discussed lingering security concerns. Moscow has yet to fully comply with the cease-fire agreement requesting that Russian forces withdraw to their preconflict positions, and that EU monitors be allowed total access to the breakaway regions.

"The current security regime must be changed. It is necessary to establish a new security regime, which in our understanding requires, in any event, the replacement of occupation forces by real peacekeeping or police forces," Georgian Deputy Foreign Minister Giga Bokeria told RFE/RL's Georgian Service.

"And as a first step toward that new security regime, at the meeting today we discussed providing access to all observers, primarily OSCE monitors, inside the conflict zone, in other words inside the occupied territories."

Bokeria also said that "most" participants in the talks were in agreement that international monitors should be allowed to travel to both sides of the demarcation line separating Georgia proper from South Ossetia and Abkhazia to fully witness the situation on the ground.

Pierre Morel, the EU's special representative for the Georgia crisis, applauded mediators for restarting the talks to resolve security and refugee issues left over from the August conflict. He said all sides agreed to meet again next month.

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