TBILISI (Reuters)–Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze urged Russia on Friday not to get involved in the conflict in Georgia’s breakaway province of Abkhazia if it wanted to rebuild good relations with Tbilisi.
Fighting in separatist Abkhazia–which gained de-facto independence from Georgia after a 1992-93 war–flared up last week amid mutual accusations of foul play by Russia and Georgia.
"Normal and good-neighborly relations will prevail between Georgia and Russia. But there is one condition–let them (Russia’s) not get in our way in Abkhazia,” the veteran leader. Russian President Vladimir Putin said Moscow had no intention of getting involved in the Abkhazian-Georgian conflict–which he said was an internal matter for Georgia. Putin said Moscow was ready to withdraw its peacekeepers at Tbilisi’s request. "They are not our peacekeepers. They are peacekeepers of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS),” he said referring to a grouping of 12 ex-Soviet states.
"If the Georgian leadership accepts all responsibility–before the international community and its own public (for security in the region)–then we are ready to withdraw the peacekeepers,” Putin said.
Any decision by Tbilisi to pull out of the CIS would not affect bilateral ties with Moscow–he added. The Council of Europe–however–said Russia could play a constructive role in Abkhazia and urged all parties to halt hostilities to avoid further destabilizing the region.
Abkhazian forces say they are fighting an encircled group of guerrillas who have attacked villages in the lawless Kodori gorge–which separates Abkhazia from Georgia proper. Abkhazia–which enjoys no international recognition–has accused clashes as a "provocation"’ and called for a meeting with Turkey and the United States to discuss the situation.
Russia-Georgia relations have remained sour since the 1992-93 Abkhazian conflict–though Tbilisi has allowed some 2,000Russian troops to police an uneasy truce in the rebel province. Georgia’s parliament voted on Thursday to demand the withdrawal of Russian peacekeepers. Shevardnadze backed the move after being confronted by 1,000 angry protesters demanding the return of the rebel region.
Georgia wants an international force to replace Russian troops but Abkhazia’s defense official told Interfax his forces would take up Russian positions if Moscow’s forces left.