Georgian minister: Russia should become part of solution

Russia should stop contributing to the conflicts in Georgia's breakaway regions and allow international mediators to help bring peace, Georgia's new foreign minister, Eka Tkeshelashvili, told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa .

"There is no question mark for any European countries that Russia portrayed itself as part of the conflict rather than a neutral peacekeeper," Tkeshelashvili, who took up her post at the beginning of May after serving as her country's chief prosecutor and justice minister, said.

Russia has been acting openly as a military player in the region, siting heavy weaponry in range of Georgian targets under the cover of its current peace-keeping mandate, she said.

"Recent footage from (unmanned spotter aircraft) clearly shows that there is artillery stationed (in Abkhazia) so that they are in range of most regions of Georgia. The troops that are in there are paratroopers," she said in an interview Monday.

Two regions of Georgia - Abkhazia and South Ossetia - fought separatist wars against Tbilisi in the early 1990s and have been effectively autonomous since 1994. Earlier this year Georgia laid out proposals for a peace plan giving them wide-ranging freedoms.

But while the Abkhaz authorities were willing to join the talks, they were being hampered by outside forces, Tkeshelashvili said.

"It has been clearly indicated by the Abkhaz authorities that the decisions they make are not the ones they make for themselves," she said, adding that the Abkhaz authorities had been "clearly prohibited to touch" the peace documents.

The current crisis in Georgian-Russian relations came when a Georgian spotter aircraft was shot down over Abkhazia on April 20. Georgia said that a Russian jet had launched the fatal missile, while Russia said that it was fired by Abkhaz separatists.

On Monday morning a UN team investigating the incident concluded that the missile had been fired from a Russian fighter.

The report is a "clear signal and a precedent that such acts cannot go unnoticed," Tkeshelashvili said, adding that similar signals in the future could lead to a lowering of tensions and the beginning of "meaningful talks."

"We do think that Russia can still be talked with, especially in the understanding that if there is proper assistance from Europe, it will become more of a reality. It's not that easy that one country could do everything, we have to leave room for everyone, the UN, the EU, the OSCE and for Russia," she said.

But in order to make those talks meaningful, there would have to be "changes on the ground" in Abkhazia, where Russian troops currently carry out peacekeeping duties, and "the possibility for direct talks" with the separatist leadership, she said.

International mediation could play a vital role in easing the situation, she said, suggesting that the EU could help in confidence- building measures such as training a multi-ethnic police force and third countries could help in a new peace-keeping system.

On her first foreign visit as her country's top diplomat, Tkeshelashvili held talks in Brussels with the EU's top foreign- policy representative, Javier Solana, the foreign ministers of the EU's Nordic and Baltic states, and EU External Affairs Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner.

In June she is set to return to Brussels to meet NATO's top officials, and she hopes to visit Germany and France as soon as it can be arranged, she said.

Many of NATO's new members in Eastern Europe pressed at a NATO summit in April for Georgia to be given a road map to membership. But Germany and France refused to accept such a step, saying that Georgia was neither stable nor safe enough.

"I think we have to have a much closer dialogue. Our effort will be directed at convincing the foreign policy people in Germany in understanding that now there is a momentum for change in the conflict zones with our full commitment to peace and the gravity of the situation on the ground," she said.

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