Officials from Georgia and Russia will meet on Wednesday in Geneva for UN-backed peace negotiations, the first time representatives of the two countries have met since hostilities erupted in August.
Georgian and Russian delegates are to meet here face-to-face on Wednesday for the first time since a brief August war to open peace talks threatened with collapse even before they begin.
The negotiations in Geneva are meant to provide a forum for Russians and Georgians to sit down together and work out how to assist displaced people faced with the onset of winter and launch an overall process for resolving the conflict.
On the eve of talks, however, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili cast serious doubt on any chances of success while branding representatives of Georgia's rebel regions of South Ossetia and Abkazia as "ethnic cleansers."
"We don't think these people are politicians, we think they are ethnic cleansers and we think they are criminals," Saakashvili told reporters in Brussels, after talks with European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso.
"First Russia has to get out of there, they have no right to be there with tanks and troops," he said. "We would be more than happy to cooperate with any community, any representative but not in this kind of situation."
Georgia plans to raise three main issues at the talks: the withdrawal of all Russian troops from its territory, return of those displaced by the conflict and the restoration of the country's territorial integrity.
But the major sticking point ahead of Wednesday's talks has been the participation, or not, of South Ossetian and Abkhazian officials in the meetings in Geneva, as Moscow insists.
As UN chief Ban Ki-moon arrived in Geneva on Tuesday to try to kick-start the talks, this fundamental problem was still to be resolved.
Russia has indicated it could pull out if delegations from the Georgian territories are not awarded equal status.
Georgia has said the official format for the talks only includes representatives of Georgia, Russia, the United States, European Union, OSCE and UN.
Speaking to AFP, Georgian Deputy Foreign Minister Giga Bokeria said Tuesday that Tbilisi could accept meeting with the regions' rebel leaders but only informally and if pro-Georgian representatives of those areas are included.
Although Russia has withdrawn from most of Georgia in line with an EU-brokered ceasefire, Tbilisi is furious at the continued presence of 7,600 Russian troops in the Georgian rebel regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
But Russian President Dmitry Medvedev insists Moscow has fulfilled its ceasefire obligations and Moscow says it will demand at the meeting a ban on all weapons sales to Georgia.
"Everything that depended on us we've done. All the obligations we undertook... we have fulfilled," Medvedev said at the close of a regional summit in Kyrgyzstan on Friday.
The UN's Ban was to hold a dinner with French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and the EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana later Tuesday to thrash out the format for the talks before they begin in earnest on Wednesday.
According to a diplomat in Brussels close to the issue, the representatives from South Ossetia and Abkazia would participate in talks at the level of two working groups, but not at the plenary sessions.
The Geneva talks will be held under the auspices of the United Nations, European Union and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).
The European delegation has been urged by the US-based non-governmental organisation Human Rights Watch to focus on protecting civilians and holding both sides to account for abuses.
"Civilians bore the brunt of this conflict," HRW's Rachel Denber said in a statement. "Tens of thousands had to flee, and now they need safe and secure conditions so they can return to their homes."
Even before Saakashvili's latest outburst, experts were not hopeful.
"There is risk of a deadlock," said Daniel Warner, a political specialist on the Caucasus at the Geneva-based Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies.
Russia launched an offensive against Georgia on August 8 to push back a Georgian offensive to retake South Ossetia from Moscow-backed separatists.
Moscow said it was protecting Russian citizens in the region from Georgian aggression, but Tbilisi accused Moscow of provoking the conflict in order to cement control over the region and destabilise its pro-Western government.
Date created : 2008-10-14