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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

NEWS ANALYSIS: Georgia Seeks UN Not Russian Peacekeepers

Georgia has let the mandate of Russian peacekeepers in its separatist Abkhazia region expire and is unlikely to ask for an extension until it exhausts yet another attempt to replace the Russian force with an international one.

The mandate of Russia's 1,500-member force expired last Friday. It must be extended every six months by leaders of the Commonwealth of Independent States, or CIS, but this can only be done if formally requested by both Georgia and Abkhazia.

Abkhaz leader Vladislav Ardzinba has said his self-proclaimed republic will seek an extension.

But Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze has held off. He said Monday he will have to consult first with Georgian refugees from Abkhazia, who criticize Russian peacekeepers for not doing enough to allow for their safe return to their homes.

Shevardnadze has called for an international peacekeeping force to replace the Russian troops, who have been in Abkhazia since 1994.

By stalling, Georgia is trying to draw attention to the threat to its territorial integrity and pressure the United Nations into sending UN peacekeepers, a Russian diplomat said Tuesday. Georgia hopes to play on fears that if peacekeepers from Russia, or elsewhere, are no longer there to separate the warring sides, the conflict would quickly heat up, said the diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The United Nations has 116 unarmed military observers in Georgia. The UN Security Council extended their mandate last week for another six months but has shown no inclination to send peacekeepers.

Abkhazia is opposed to installing any "foreign troops who may know little about peculiarities of this conflict," said Emik Ankvab, spokesman for the self-styled Abkhaz government's Foreign Ministry.

The Abkhaz fear that international peacekeepers may try to force them into accepting Georgia's offer of autonomy within a federal state as the NATO force did with Serbian separatists in Bosnia.

Georgia has accused Russia of helping Abkhazia win the 13-month war in 1992-93, in which 10,000 people were killed.

The victorious Abkhaz troops drove up to 300,000 ethnic Georgian civilians from their homes, and few have returned.

Tbilisi and Sukhumi have held numerous rounds of UN- and Russian-sponsored talks, but no breakthrough has been reached.

The two sides came close to returning to full-fledged war last May, but Russian peacekeepers blocked armored units advancing from both sides after a series of gun battles.

Tbilisi maintains that Russian peacekeepers still support the Abkhaz, and Moscow is believed to have influence on Abkhaz leaders. The Russian diplomat said that by stalling on extending Russia's peacekeeping mandate, Georgia also is trying to get Moscow to pressure Abkhazia into abandoning its independence drive.

Russia wants to keep its peacekeepers in the region, fearing that their departure would not only rekindle the war but spread the unrest to Russia's own volatile North Caucasian regions, said Lev Mironov, Russia's special envoy to the Georgian-Abkhaz talks.

"It is our soft belly. ... We are not interested in resumption of the conflict," Mironov said in an interview Tuesday.

Both Abkhazian and Russian officials say the peacekeeping force has fulfilled its main mission of preventing a renewed war. But Georgians say that is not enough.

"They are acting more like border guards separating us, but doing nothing to help refugees come back," said Alexander Chekvadia, an Abkhazia expert at the Georgian Embassy in Moscow.

Even without an extension of their mandate, the Russian peacekeepers remain in place, believing that Georgia eventually will apply for the extension as it has done in the past.

Last August, Shevardnadze refused to renew the mandate, but later agreed to an extension.

Charles Blandy at the Sandhurst Conflict Studies Center in Britain said Tuesday that he expects Georgia will relent once again. Until a peaceful solution is found, Georgia has no alternative to accepting Russian peacekeepers unless it wants to fight the Abkhaz again, a fight Georgia would be certain to lose.