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With Abkhazia at the UN, Breakaway Republics' Club is Waiting, Disputes on Visas, Kosovo and Exhibitions

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

UNITED NATIONS, April 10, updated 8 pm -- As the UN Security Council on Tuesday discussed the breakaway republic of Abkhazia, Georgia, the U.S. and Russian Ambassadors traded diplomatic barbs about a man who wasn't there.

    The Abkhaz foreign minister Sergei Shamba, it having been made clear that no U.S. visa would be granted, appeared by written text and, it was said, a compact disk that would be given to all Council members. Inner City Press asked U.S. Ambassador Alejandro Wolff if he had the c.d. and would watch it. [It is in Russian with English subtitles; its final line is that "the recognition of independence of Abkhazia and other republics such as South Ossetia and Transdniestria would be a logical conclusion of this process." Click here to see Mr. Shamba himself.]

    Amb. Wolff said that Russian Ambassador Churkin was being "mischievous" and making "theater," by ignoring speakers in chamber and walking out of the Council.

            Amb. Churkin laughed when told of this characterization. "I have to be very careful walking around this building," he said, recounting that he left to deliver a speech in the First Committee of the General Assembly, about disarmament, pursuant to Russia's "important political and intellectual role" on the issue.

   There was a momentary opening to bring several UN issues together, and Inner City Press took it, asking Amb. Churkin if he had seen a photo exhibition about Abkhazia that is up on the walls in the UN's basement by the Vienna Cafe. The exhibit includes photos of Georgians being shot and killed in the streets of the Abkhaz capital of Sukhumi in 1993, and includes not-entirely-clear quotes about genocide and ethnic cleansing.

            "Yes," Amb. Churkin replied. "It's one-sided. It's unhelpful... One side is engaged in a massive campaign. But they chose to do it."

            "But you don't think that countries should block each other's exhibition," asked Inner City Press, referring to Turkey's blocking earlier in the week of a memorial to the Rwandan genocide, due to a reference to "one million Armenians murdered in Turkey."

            "I don't want to generalize," Amb. Churkin said. He again called the Georgian exhibit "unhelpful" and "bad propaganda," but said Russia had "decided it was not the situation we should shake the tree."

            One observer noted that Russia should be given credit for not trying to have the exhibition cancelled. China, for example, did try to cancel an exhibition sponsored by a non-governmental organization from Taiwan, and more recently got a Taiwanese presentation removed from a UN web cast, click here for that story.

    Some analogize between China's position on Taiwan and Turkey's activism in opposing any characterization of Armenians' deaths just before and during World War I as a genocide. The same word, applied in Georgia's exhibition about Abkhazia, does not draw the same vehemence from Russia. Perhaps it is because Russia has a handful of such issues, from Chechnya (which it wants to keep) to Kosovo (which it wants Serbia to be able to keep) to South Ossentia (which, like Abkhazia, Russia would like to see break away from Georgia).

            U.S. Ambassador Wolff disputed Russia's analogy between Abkhazia and Kosovo. Amb. Churkin had said, Imagine the Security Council considering Kosovo while only hearing from the Serbian side. Last week the Council heard the Kosovar position, albeit in a non-formal Arria style proceeding.

  Some wonder: what is the distinction in barring the Abkhaz side, other than the foreign policy of the host country?  And what is the difference between Georgia's Abkhazia exhibition's use of graphic photos, for example of a dozen men shot dead and bleeding on the ground in September 1993, and of the word genocide and the unceremoniously postponed Rwanda exhibit, with its inclusion of "one million Armenians murdered in Turkey" on a display headed, "Genocide: whose responsibility"?

UN doctors try to heal in Gali (more graphic photos on display in UN hallway)

            For the record, the mandate of the UN's Mission to Georgia is set to expire on April 15, so a vote to extend it is expected on Friday, April 13. In town to do Russia's heavy lifting is their specialist on Abkhazia, Vladislav Chernov. In New York on Tuesday, Mr. Chernov told reporters to expect the investigative report on the Kodori Gorge military incidents -- which include alleged Russian use of helicopter gunships -- in two weeks.

   The thumbnail background is that Abkhazia de facto broke away from Georgia in September 1993. The Georgian exhibition currently on display at the UN states that "under threat of death the local inhabitants were expelled from the territory of Abkhazia," and puts the number of expellees at 250,000 Georgians and 100,000 others, listing "Russians, Armenians, Greeks, Jews, Ukrainians and Estonians." With the mixing of territories and religions, one wag wonders if there is not some double-counting. One exhibit mis-spells the word "seazure" (for seizure), calling into question the statement that all such exhibition are reviewed by the UN Department of Public Information, click here for video of that statement.

[Update 8 p.m. -- subsequent to the statement(s) that DPI had reviewed Georgia's exhibition about Abkhazia, the statement was amended that the exhibition had not be reviewed. The event took place, wine glassed clinked; a "read out" has been promised of Georgia's Prime Minister's meeting with the Secretary General.]

            The Georgian exhibition includes a 1993 quote attributed to Russia's then-foreign minister, that "Everything, that is happening  in Sukhumi is ethnic cleansing." Given that it is Georgia, and not Russia, which states that votes held in Abkhazia are illegitimate because of the ethnic cleansing of ethnic Georgians, the quote seems strange, purportedly having come for a Russian foreign minister.

   Inner City Press asked the Russian mission's spokeswoman, who in turn asked rhetorically, ethnic cleansing of whom, by whom? "That's what you should ask him," she said. But Georgian Prime Minister Mr. Zurab Nogaideli spoke only very briefing to reporters outside the Security Council. Inner City Press asked about Georgia's lawsuit against Russia in the European Court of Human Rights. The Georgia Prime Minister refused to comment on the case. Click here to view; click here for the Court's Registrar's release  on the "Inter-state application brought by Georgia against the Russian Federation."

            While the Security Council was meeting on Tuesday, the foreign ministers of South Ossentia, Abkhazia and Transdniestria -- Murad Dzhioyev, Sergei Shamba and Valeri Litskai, respectively -- were slated to meet in Sukhumi, forming their Association For Democracy and Peoples Rights, a/k/a Club of Breakaway Republics. Some wonder why Nagorno-Karabakh is not included. In any event for now the meeting was reportedly postponed, due both to the hospitalization of Abkhaz president Sergei Bagapsh and to a decision to wait for the Security Council slated Friday vote on its extension of the UN's Mission to Georgia. At deadline, the Abkhaz government's web site still called the breakaways' meeting "ongoing." We'll see.

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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.

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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