Georgian analysts see few grounds to hope that a meeting later this week between Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and Russian leader Dmitry Medvedev will ease tension related to the breakaway region of Abkhazia.
The meeting has been tentatively scheduled for June 6 on the sidelines of the Commonwealth of Independent States summit in St. Petersburg.
Since his elevation to the presidency, Medvedev has largely steered clear of directly addressing the issue of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Georgia's two separatist-minded entities. If nothing else, forecasts one leading Georgian foreign policy analyst, his discussion with Saakashvili should clarify what Georgia can expect from Russia's new president, and provide Tbilisi with an indication of just how much decision-making power he actually wields. [For background see the Eurasia insight archive].
"The main question here is what Medvedev really can do, and what power he really has," said Alexander Rondeli, president of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies in Tbilisi.
"This is an introductory meeting and it can bring positive results first of all because the direct and personal channels for relations between the two presidents can be set up," Rondeli added.
Russia's recent moves in Abkhazia, however, lead many Georgians to believe that ex-president Vladimir Putin, the current Russian prime minister, still calls the shots where policy toward Georgia's two conflict zones is concerned. The May 31 deployment of "unarmed" Russian railway troops to Abkhazia to repair the breakaway region's railway and road infrastructure is the latest cause for heightened alarm.
The move has sparked sharp criticism from Washington. In a May 31 statement, the US Department of State said that it was "dismayed" by the deployment.
That theme could be heard again on June 5-6 when European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana travels to the Abkhaz capital, Sukhumi, for talks with separatist leader Sergei Bagapsh. A group of European Union ambassadors to Tbilisi visited the city over the weekend in preparation for the talks. In a June 1 statement, French Ambassador Eric Fournier said that the group had pushed for a resumption of direct Georgian-Abkhaz talks, news agencies reported.
Meanwhile, Tbilisi has dismissed the Russian Defense Ministry's contention that its railway troops were dispatched to provide "humanitarian aid" alone.
"Russia's last steps are a clear military intervention and one more serious step towards annexation [of Abkhazia]," Foreign Minister Eka Tkeshelashvili told Georgian media, repeating an earlier demand for the immediate withdrawal of additional Russian peacekeeping troops recently deployed in Abkhazia.
On June 2, the Georgian National Security Council met to discuss Tbilisi's response to the railway troops' deployment. An announcement is expected after a telephone conversation between Saakashvili and Medvedev scheduled for June 3, Georgian media outlets have reported.
State Minister for Reintegration Temur Yakobashvili warned that Georgia will not "be limited only to resolutions" in its response to what Yakobashvili termed "signs of [Russia's] occupation" of Abkhazia.
The fact that the move came less than a week before the meeting between Saakashvili and Medvedev has raised doubts among some Tbilisi analysts about the extent of Medvedev's input into the decision. Political analyst Ramaz Sakvarelidze contends that a post-election power struggle within the Kremlin might be behind the move to send the troops to Abkhazia. While Medvedev may have "more administrative resources" at his disposal, Prime Minister Putin can still count on his "connections with the military sphere," he said.
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Nina Akhmeteli is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi.