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U.S. Exclusion of Abkhazia Minister Explained, While Gunship Mystery Continues, Russia in the Wings

Byline: Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press at the UN

UNITED NATIONS, April 5 -- In the run up to next week's Security Council meeting on Abkhazia and Georgia, Inner City Press on Thursday asked U.S. Ambassador Alejandro Wolff about the host country's previous denial of a visa to Abkhazia's foreign minister. Amb. Wolff answered, in essence, we did it because we could. From the transcript:

Inner City Press: On Abkhazia, if the self-styled prime minister of Abkhazia sought to attend, would the host country grant him a visa, at this time?

Ambassador Wolff:  The issue hasn't come up.

Inner City Press: Could you say why in the past the U.S. didn't do it? Ambassador Churkin has said that last time, six months ago, when they met on the extension, that he was not allowed to attend.

Ambassador Wolff:  We have a political process underway through a group called the friends of Georgia, that's focusing on conflict resolution and negotiations with the parties, there are considerations related to that, and all members except the Russian Federation believe that the timing is not appropriate, that it would be counter productive, that it would not contribute to the efforts underway to try to deal with this issue through a conflict resolution process that the Friends are leading.

            With Friends like these... The just-issued Secretary General's report on Abkhazia mentions a Geneva meeting of the Group of Friends, chaired by UN Peacekeeping's Jean-Marie Guehenno, with the participation of Abkhazia's "de facto Foreign Minister Sergey Shamba."  So apparently, this "de facto" foreign minister can attended UN-chaired meetings in Geneva, but cannot enter the United States. At least not at this time.

            The Abkhazia report also recites that "late in the evening of 11 March... five helicopters has approached the upper Kodori valley from the north and fired rockets at the villages of Chkhalta and Adjara... The investigation is still in progress."

            The alleged motive is that the target was the seat of the pro-Georgia Abkhaz government-in-exile, which was commissioned by Georgian president Saakashvili.

Gov't-in-exile compound, fired on

  Note: while Abkhazia is a breakaway republic of Georgia, which some say broke away from the USSR, the Upper Kodori Gorge is a breakaway from the rest of Abkhazia: a three-fer, if you will.) The alleged culprit, deployer of gunship helicopters, is Russia. Ambassador Wolff was asked:

...there have been allegations in various things, that it was the Russians. But, how seriously is the U.S., but also the Security Council, taking this issue, if it does turn out that a permanent member of the Security Council might have been involved in firing helicopter gun ships in another country's territory, what kind of recourse might there be, what kind of discussions might we be seeing, you know, over the coming days?

Ambassador Wolff:  Well, I've not seen any conclusions from the report yet, I know there's an investigation either way.  Clearly, as you stated, any attack on a sovereign country is to be taken very seriously, we will evaluate the reports, we will be discussing it with the experts who conducted it, we have a meeting set up next week as you know on the renewal of UNOMIG, the Georgian prime minister will come, we'll hear from special representative Arnault, and I'm sure this will figure prominently in our exchanges to try to get to the bottom of this.

            But again, breakaway Abkhazia's "de facto" Foreign Minister Sergey Shamba will not be present, according to Amb. Wolff's response. "At least you got an answer," another correspondent whispered to Inner City Press. It was not so easy getting a quote from the UN about its follow-through on its statement, following the military coup in Fiji in late 2006, that it would not use more Fijian troops as peacekeepers until democracy was restored. Click here for that story. And while UK Ambassador Emyr Jones Parry stopped to take a question about the UK's policy on whether the UN, post-coup, should use Fijian peacekeepers, his answer was, "I won't know if we have a policy on that." Honest, at least.

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At the UN, Kosovo Questions Glean Abkhaz Visa Answers, Arria-Style Then and Now

Byline: Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press at the UN

UNITED NATIONS, April 3 -- After a full day of positioning in the Security Council on resolving Kosovo's status, the question of what precedent independence for Kosovo would set inevitably arose. Inner City Press asked U.S. Ambassador Alejandro Wolff how, for example, Kosovo and Serbia could be distinguished from Abkhazia and Georgia, and secondarily, why the U.S. had denied a visa to the (self-styled) Foreign Minister of the (breakaway) Republic of Abkhazia. Amb. Wolff on-camera responded to the precedent question, while not explaining the visa denial.

            Amb. Wolff pointed out that Kosovo has been administered by the U.N. for seven to eight years. In response to a question of whether the U.S. believes that international law permits the Security Council to grant independence to a part of a previously sovereign country, Amb. Wolff said that the Security Council is international law. This is a statement that will need some follow-up.

            A skirmish earlier in the day concerned whether Kosovo's president could sit at the Council table. Russia objected -- resolution 1244 says that only the UN Special Representative can speak for Kosovo during this period -- and so a so-called Arria style proceeding was convened, not in the Council chamber, and not officially a Council meeting. (Pay attention, because this distinction will return.)

            Next up was Martti Ahtisaari, who joked that he hoped there were no questions left for him. There were, of course, questions, including from Inner City Press whether he deems productive Russia's two suggestions, that the Council members visit the region, and get a report on implementation of Resolution 1244. Mr. Ahtisaari answered diplomatically that it is entirely up to the Council.

            UK Ambassador Emyr Jones Parry, the Council's president this month, patiently took questions. He said the day had been productive. On the question, from Inner City Press, of Kosovo as precedent, Amb. Jones Parry went back to 1389 (the year, not the resolution), then said that in 1989 Milosevic "threw a bomb," leading to the next "twenty years" -- he corrected himself, "eighteen years." But what then of Nagorno-Karabakh?

Kosovo: Boys with bread

            After Amb. Wolff had ceded the stakeout microphone to Mr. Ahtisaari, a U.S. official who asked to be identified as such explained that the U.S. visa had been denied to the so-called Foreign Minister of Abkhazia without violating the U.S.'s obligations as UN host country. Abkhazia is not a country, he said, and the (non-) foreign minister wasn't seeking to travel to an official Security Council or UN meeting, but rather an Arria style meeting. (Yes, see foreshadowing above.) "For bilateral reasons, the visa was denied," he said.

   Back in October 2006, Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said that the U.S. had offered to grant the visa if Russia would agree to certain U.S.-favored changes in the then-draft resolution to extend the U.N. mission in Georgia for another six months. That day, Inner City Press asked Amb. Churkin if he would file a complaint with the UN's Host Country Committee. Amb. Churkin said yes, but there's no evidence that he did, and now the U.S. argues that its duties as host country were not implicated, due in part because it was an Arria style meeting that he sought to attend. As another blast from the past -- though not all the way back to 1389 -- click here for the video as Inner City Press asked then-Ambassador John Bolton about the U.S.'s denial of visa. From the U.S. prepared transcript:

Inner City Press: On Georgia, Ambassador Churkin said that the Abkhaz foreign ministry called him, a person from Abkhazia.  Was the U.S. embassy in Moscow didn't give him a visa in exchange for somehow changing the language of the resolution on Georgia -- is that your understanding of what happened? He said it right here.

Ambassador Bolton: I have -- yeah, you know, I have no idea what that's about.

            Sources told Inner City Press, however, that not only had Amb. Churkin made his statement about the visa in a televised interview which the U.S. State Department presumably monitors, but also that the visa issue had been discussed in the Security Council consultations prior to Amb. Bolton's above-quoted answer.  Can what is said outside the chamber be entirely believed?

   Back in October 2006, the U.N. Mission in Georgia was extended for six months, which now run out mid-April. In the interim, there are allegations of Russian helicopter gunship firing in the area, and Georgia has filed suit in the European Court of Human Rights for Russia's round-up and deportation of Georgia. In the Council, and not only on Kosovo, expect fireworks.

UN Keeps Peacekeepers from Post-Coup Fiji, Has No Comment On Role in Bangladesh Coup

Byline: Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press at the UN

UNITED NATIONS, April 3 -- One of Kofi Annan's final acts as Secretary General was to say the UN would not use troops from post-coup Fiji as peacekeepers. Tuesday Inner City Press asked the spokesperson for Annan's successor Ban Ki-moon to confirm or deny that Mr. Ban has changed this policy, and has told the head of the Commonwealth that "we need these troops."

            "I cannot confirm this at this point," the spokesperson said. Video here, from Minute 10:05. From the transcript:

Inner City Press: There was a quote by the head of the Commonwealth, Don McKinnon, saying he spoke with Ban Ki-moon about the Fijian peacekeepers, and again asked him to either enforce or implement the idea that peacekeepers, following the coup, wouldn’t be used by DPKO.  He said, and I'm not sure if it's true or not, "Don, we need the peacekeepers," Mr. Ban said.  Did Mr. Ban say that?

Spokesperson:  I cannot confirm this at this point.  I cannot confirm this at this point. I think we have to stop here because Mr. Guehenno is with us right now.

    In the same briefing, Inner City Press asked Under Secretary General for Peacekeeping Jean-Marie Guehenno to describe his Department's policy on employing Fijian soldiers. Mr. Guehenno rolled his eyes -- video here at Minute 30:15 -- and then said that he would not comment on the matter.

            It would appear that the policy announced by Kofi Annan has changed. Beyond the post-coup issues in Fiji, there are unanswered questions about Bangladesh' coup. On February 22, Inner City Press asked both DPKO spokesmen

"about the peacekeepers from Fiji headed to Sinai and Sudan (Q: was this in the works before the coup? What if anything is being done on the Dec. 2006 statement that the coup could impact Fiji's status as troop contributor?) and, more pertinent to this message, about the Economist's recent article about a Jan. 10 communication from the UN to the military in Bangladesh, which the Economist concludes may have helped lead to a coup.  Does DPKO have no idea what communication the Economist was referring to? If DPKO wasn't the origin of the 'UN' communication, which agency or individual might have been? Please comment."

            Neither DPKO spokesman, however, provided any comment.

Silence as respect, vs. silence on Fiji and Bangladesh

    Meanwhile, DPKO is currently recruiting for a "small" (50 to 100 people) permanent "standing" police force, to send to global hot-spots on very little notice. It's a miniature or pilot version of an idea pitched by Sir Brian Urqhart, who called it a standing rapid deployment force. Unlike the apparent backsliding on Fiji, the standing force is a story which might make DPKO look good. But secrecy now seems to rule the day. The Bangladesh story has been repeated:

"It was against this backdrop that the United Nations, worried about the possibility of a sham election, sent an uncharacteristic letter to the Bangladesh military chief, Lieutenant General Moeen U Ahmed, warning him that he would seriously risk his forces’ peacekeeping contracts with the UN if he agreed to provide security for the elections. The Bangladesh Army contributes over 10,000 peacekeepers to the UN – more than any other country in the world -- and rakes in a massive USD 300 million a year in peacekeeping contracts. It was no surprise, then, that by the evening of 11 January, Lt Gen Ahmed had ordered President Iajuddin Ahmed to cancel the election and place Bangladesh under a state of emergency -- and to put in place a military-backed regime, which subsequently promised a massive cleanup of the country’s politics before any new elections."

            Speaking of cleanups, we will have more in coming days about what brought Mr. Guehenno to the UN's briefing room on Tuesday: landmines and unexploded remnants of war. Developing.

Other Inner City Press reports are available in the ProQuest service and some are archived on --

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