U.S. in drive for Georgia-Abkhazia peace talks

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The United States is making a diplomatic drive to bring Russia, Georgia and leaders of the breakaway Georgian region of Abkhazia together for peace talks in Berlin next week, a senior U.S. official said on Thursday.

Western governments fear that rising tension between Moscow and Tbilisi over the impoverished Black Sea territory could spiral into war, destabilizing the Caucasus region, a vital route for Caspian energy routes to Europe.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza told Reuters he would travel to the region on Friday to try to persuade the Georgian government and the rebels to attend talks with Russia, the United States and European powers in the German capital.

“It’s our aspiration. I don’t know if it’s going to happen. I’m on my way to Tbilisi and Sukhumi to see if we can convince them to come together,” Bryza said in an interview in Brussels, where he discussed the conflict in Georgia and energy issues with European Union officials.

Moscow-backed separatists in Abkhazia, which broke away from central rule after a war in the 1990s, last week rejected a five-power plan presented by German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier to ease tensions in the region.

They said they would not talk to Tbilisi until Georgia withdrew troops from a disputed gorge in the province.

Bryza said Russia and Georgia needed to take simultaneous steps to reduce military tensions, and he hoped a package of such measures could be worked out in Berlin next week.

“All of us in the international community need to make clear to Russia that it really has gone too far. It has taken steps that are deeply provocative and have led to some people in Georgia calculating that their only way forward is through escalation, and that is a path that cannot succeed,” he said.

“PAYBACK”

Washington was also pressing Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili to show restraint and put more generous proposals on the table to guarantee the physical, economic and cultural security of the Abkhazians, Bryza said.

Many Western analysts believe Moscow is stoking tension in Abkhazia as retaliation for Western recognition of Kosovo’s secession from Serbia, and for NATO’s declaration in April that Georgia and Ukraine will one day join the defense alliance.

Since April, he said, Russia had adopted a decree to establish official ties with the separatists, shot down an unmanned Georgian spy plane over Abkhazia — which Moscow denies — and moved troops and railway construction soldiers into the breakaway region.

Asked what interest Moscow would have in reversing those steps, Bryza said: “A lot of this may be about payback.

“If it is, then the way out of this is by elevating the costs of payback, higher than the value of the payback.”

He said he was not yet convinced Russia wanted to reduce tension, but Moscow had no interest in an armed conflict that could undermine its quest for stability on its southern border.

“I don’t think anyone in Russia wants to see instability spreading across the Caucasus,” Bryza said, noting that Russia was due to host the 2014 winter Olympic Games at the Black Sea resort of Sochi, adjacent to Georgia.

“God forbid that instability becomes a contagion,” he said.

He applauded Steinmeier and German Chancellor Angela Merkel for creating a settlement process with the backing of a group of so-called friends of the United Nations, comprising the United States, Russia, Germany, Britain and France.

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