Geneva peace talks downgraded over Georgia, Russia row

Peace talks between Russia and Georgia after their war this summer were set Tuesday to be downgraded to a series of technical meetings as the two disagreed on who could participate in the talks, reported dpa.

At issue is Russia's insistence that representatives from Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Moscow-backed rebel areas seeking independence from Georgia, participate in talks.

Russian negotiators said they would not show up unless the two regions, which Russia has recognized as independent nations, had a seat at the table for the talks scheduled for Wednesday in the Swiss capital.

"Without them, we won't go to Geneva," Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin said in a statement.

But before boarding a plane to Geneva, the head of the Georgian delegation said: "The Georgian side will not allow it.

"Representatives from Abkhazia and the so-called South Ossetia will not take part in negotiations in Geneva," Deputy Foreign Minsiter Grigol Vashadze was quoted by news agency Interfax as saying.

Moscow flew in the face of Western criticism and recognized the two regions as independent after routing a Georgian offensive to take back control over South Ossetia in August. Both have been self- governed since breaking from Tbilisi's rule in the early 1990s.

The disagreement means high-level negotiations to smooth out an EU- brokered ceasefire have devolved into "technical meetings" at the expert level, as a UN spokesman put it.

While UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon was in Geneva Tuesday, neither he nor OSCE Chairman Alexander Stubb, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner or EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana will join Russia and Georgia for discussions. They will hold a separate meeting excluding the two foes.

The Geneva talks will open with a plenary meeting to be co-hosted by the EU, UN and OSCE before breaking into informal working groups, an EU diplomat in Brussels told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa.

At the eleventh hour, and despite frosty relations between Moscow and Washington, US officials also announced they would be present at the talks.

Georgian media cited the OSCE as saying that representatives of South Ossetia and Abkhazia were attending without giving further details. Russian news wires reported that these representatives could be folded into the Russian delegation.

Vashadze said Georgia's agenda was clear: "The full withdrawal of Russian occupiers from Georgia, the return of all refugees and the restoration of Georgia's integrity to its internationally recognised borders."

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, meanwhile, has said Moscow would push for an arms embargo on Georgia. It considers any discussions on the status of Georgia's breakaway provinces to be closed.

Nicaragua is the only state to have followed Russia's approval of South Ossetia and Abkhazia right to self-determination.

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