In what could prove to be the first breakthrough in the stand-off over its separatist Abkhazia region, Georgia has made an offer to Russia to divide the region into zones of influence, a Russian paper claims.
In the alleged offer, Georgia would pull its troops into the north of Abkhazia
According to the Russian Kommersant broadsheet, Georgia also offered to renounce its goal to join NATO, a flashpoint topic for the Russian administration.
The offer, detailed in the report which cited unnamed officials in the Russian foreign ministry and in Georgia's leadership, came after Abkhaz separatist chief Sergei Bagapsh held talks in Moscow on Thursday.
In the report, it is claimed that Georgia would extend its control further north into Abkhazia, as far as the Kodori River, and would provide a haven there for Georgian refugees who fled fighting in the region in the 1990s.
Under Tbilisi's proposal, the whole of Abkhazia would remain part of Georgia but with wide autonomy, Kommersant reported.
In return, Russia would also formally renounce a cooperation agreement with the separatists that was reached in April. However, the report claims that Russia would keep its peacekeepers in the Russian zone of influence and would expect Georgia to allow Russian investors free rein in Abkhazia.
Dropping NATO ambitions a major concession
Saakashvili had made NATO membership a strategic objective
The most striking claim is that Georgia would drop its NATO membership goals as part of the deal. This would be a major concession by President Mikhail Saakashvili, who has made joining the alliance a strategic objective and received US support.
"For Russia the reward for its help would be Georgia's renunciation of its plans to join NATO,” the newspaper said. "All participants ... would achieve their goals and save face. Georgian President Saakashvili could joyfully declare the return of Abkhazia to the bosom of the country while the Abkhaz side, losing control of an insignificant part of the territory, would guarantee itself de facto independence."
Abkhazia is recognized as part of Georgia but it is run by separatists with support from Moscow. Friction between the ex-Soviet neighbors over the region has alarmed Western states worried about a conflagration near a vital oil export route.
The report stated, however, that Abkhaz chief Bagapsh was dissatisfied with the alleged proposals.
"There are no new proposals here. All this is old.... We've formulated our position very clearly: Autonomous status within Georgia in no way suits us," Bagapsh told the newspaper.
Tensions over Abkhazia have spiraled in recent months following Russia's establishment of formal ties with the separatists, in part inspired by Western recognition of Kosovo.
Friday's report comes as top European Union officials were expected to touch on Georgia at talks in Siberia with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.