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Russia ratchets up tension over Georgian republics

Parliament seeks recognition for the independence of two regions at the heart of this month's crisis.

August 26, 2008|Sergei L. Loiko and Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writers

MOSCOW — The Russian parliament Monday called upon President Dmitry Medvedev to recognize the independence of two breakaway Georgian republics, a gambit that promises to further inflame tensions between Russia and the United States.

Lawmakers in both houses of parliament voted unanimously for the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, where a 2-decade-old rebellion ballooned this month into a bloody struggle between Russia and U.S.-backed Georgia.

Recognition of the rebel republics as independent countries would amount to an attempt on the part of Moscow to redraw the borders of the former Soviet Union. By attempting to chop away territory from a neighboring nation with close ties to the U.S., the declaration would also be viewed as a challenge leveled at Washington. American officials have made plain their support for Georgia's territorial integrity.

But in Russia, officials have described the decision as a matter of moral urgency. Georgia lost its right to keep its borders intact when it launched a military operation in South Ossetia early this month, killing civilians and Russian peacekeepers in the process, Moscow has repeatedly argued.

"Russia should have recognized the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia long ago, and should have followed it up with defense cooperation and assistance treaties long ago too," said Mikhail Delyagin, chairman of Moscow's Institute for Globalization Studies. "Then Georgia wouldn't have risked invading the countries."

President Bush, spending an end-of-summer holiday at his home near Crawford, Texas, said in a written statement that he was "deeply concerned" by the move to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent nations.

"Georgia's territorial integrity and borders must command the same respect as every other nation's, including Russia's," the president said.

The White House announced that Vice President Dick Cheney would travel next week to Georgia, as well as Azerbaijan and Ukraine.

For years, Russia has quietly filled the void left by the republics' distance from the central Georgian government. Residents of South Ossetia and Abkhazia carry Russian passports, collect Russian pensions, trade in Russian rubles and even voted in this year's election for Russian president. Hundreds of Russian peacekeepers were stationed in the republics long before the recent eruption of fighting.

Russian involvement in the rebel regions has drawn charges that Moscow is carrying out a slow-motion annexation of the land. Russian officials deny those accusations.

Moscow has been warning of the independence move for months, since the West outraged Russia by recognizing the independence of Kosovo.

At the time, infuriated Russian officials said bluntly that allowing Kosovo to break from Serbia set a dangerous precedent that would embolden separatist movements around the world and melt down the borders of Europe.

Some Russian lawmakers began to call for the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and the republics began a campaign of intense lobbying in Moscow. Tension built up until it exploded in this month's armed conflict.

Georgia sent columns of tanks and soldiers into South Ossetia more than two weeks ago in a surprise maneuver meant to stun the breakaway republic and quickly bring it back under the control of the central government. But the strategy failed: Russia sent thousands of troops to fight on the side of South Ossetia, soundly trouncing Georgia and seizing control of lands even beyond the rebel republics.

Since then, Moscow has vowed to support independence for the republics.

But Monday, a South Ossetian official hinted that independence was a first step toward joining Russia.

"Currently, it is important for us that South Ossetia should gain independence legally from the point of view of the world community," South Ossetian Foreign Minister Murat Dzhioyev told the Interfax news agency. "After this, we shall be able to seek accession into the Russian Federation, but this issue will be postponed for the future."

In an impassioned appeal for independence, South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoity reminded lawmakers in the lower house of Russia's parliament of his republic's "special historical, political and ethno-cultural relationship with Russia."

"Only the international recognition of independence and sovereignty . . . will give reliable international guarantees of security and free development rights, improve the situation and ensure stability in the Caucasian region," he said.

Abkhaz President Sergei Bagapsh, meanwhile, called for a military cooperation agreement between an independent Abkhazia and Russia.

Andrei Kortunov, president of Moscow's New Eurasia Foundation, warned that recognition of the republics' independence would open a new era of instability in the Caucasus. The international community will remain opposed to breaking off Georgia's rebel territories into separate countries, he predicted.

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