Russia Pledges to Recognize Abkhazia

MOSCOW, ABKHAZIA (Combined Sources)–Georgia’s region of Abkhazia Wednesday declared that it would ask Russia to recognize its independence in a move that threatens to trigger a new crisis in the Caucasus.

The Abkhaz parliament said that it would send a formal request for recognition to President Dmitri Medvedev in Moscow Thursday.

"The people of Abkhazia intend to ask the Russian leadership to recognise Abkhazia," said the Deputy Speaker of Abkhazia’s Parliament, Vyacheslav Tsugba.

The Speaker of Russia’s upper house of parliament, the Federation Council, said that legislators were ready to support the request and to extend recognition to South Ossetia too.

Sergei Mironov told the Interfax news agency: "The Federation Council is ready to recognize the independent status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia if that is what the people of these republics want and also if there is a corresponding decision by the Russian president."

Mironov’s deputy, Svetlana Orlova, announced an emergency session of the Federation Council for Monday to discuss recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states.

President Bush Wednesday affirmed support for the territorial integrity of Georgia, declaring that the breakaway provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia "are part of" the country and again condemned Russia’s two-week-old invasion in support of separatists there.

In a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars national convention in Orlando, Fla., Bush pledged that the United States and its allies "will support young democracies" of the former Soviet Union. He praised Georgia for holding free elections after its 2003 Rose Revolution and for sending its troops to Afghanistan and Iraq.

"South Ossetia and Abkhazia are part of Georgia," Bush declared. "And the United States will work with our allies to ensure Georgia’s independence and territorial integrity."

Abkhazia and South Ossetia are recognized internationally as parts of Georgia, although both have been de facto independent since breaking away from the central government in Tbilisi in vicious wars during the early 1990s.

Abkhazia wants independence and South Ossetians want to reunite with their ethnic kin inside Russia in North Ossetia.

Moscow has funded both for years and distributed Russian passports to their residents, justifying its intervention in South Ossetia last week by the need to protect Russian citizens.

Medvedev has already pledged to "make the decision which unambiguously supports the will of these two Caucasus peoples". But any Kremlin move to recognize the breakaway regions would trigger condemnation in the United States and Europe, which have repeatedly insisted on respect for Georgia’s territorial integrity.

It would almost certainly lead to a fresh confrontation, as President Mikheil Saakashvili appeals for international aid to prevent Russia annexing Georgian land. Nato declared its support for "Georgia’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity" at yesterday’s emergency meeting of foreign ministers.

But President Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, will point to the precedent established in Kosovo, despite continuing Kremlin opposition to its independence from Russia’s ally Serbia. Putin has already warned the West that Kosovo would set an example for separatists in the countries of the former Soviet Union.

Temur Yakobashvili, Georgia’s Minister for Reintegration, sought to play down the development, saying: "It’s the police who must deal with people like the leaders of separatists in Abkhazia, not me."

Saakashvili has long argued that any declaration of independence by Abkhazia is meaningless because at least 200,000 ethnic Georgians were expelled from the region after the war 16 years ago and remain refugees. He has insisted that they be allowed to return home, a move rejected by the separatists who argue that the Abkhaz would be a minority in their own homeland.

Thousands of Georgians have fled or been driven from their homes in South Ossetia since the conflict broke out last week. Aid agencies estimate that more than 100,000 people have been displaced by the fighting and Russian occupation of the Georgian city of Gori.

Russian forces continued to man checkpoints on the main road out of Gori today, the nearest just 25 miles from Georgia’s capital Tbilisi. Foreign Secretary David Miliband, visiting Tbilisi, accused Russia of "not living up to its word" in pledging to withdraw troops.

Medvedev has now said that all but 500 soldiers would be pulled out of Georgia by Friday, though Russia has insisted that it will continue to patrol a buffer zone of Georgian territory seven kilometres beyond the border of South Ossetia.

The deputy head of general staff, Colonel General Anatoly Nogovitsyn, told reporters in Moscow that 64 Russian soldiers had died and 323 had been wounded in the fighting with Georgia. Russia had previously declared that it lost 74 soldiers, with 170 wounded.

Abkhazia stretches along 137 miles of stunning Black Sea coastline as the western fragment of Georgia’s border with Russia, backing onto the Caucasus mountains in a total area of just over 3,000 square miles. The Russian ruble, not the Georgian Lari, already circulates there and many Abkhazians stream across the border each day to seek work on construction projects in the nearby resort of Sochi, which will host the 2014 Winter Olympics.

Abkhazia was a Russian protectorate from 1810 until the Red Army incorporated the Caucasus into the Soviet Union after the Bolshevik revolution. Joseph Stalin merged Abkhazia into Georgia in 1931, although it enjoyed a degree of autonomy within the unified Soviet republic.

When Georgia declared independence in 1991 as the Soviet Union was collapsing, Abkhazia sought to break free from Georgia to establish its own state. Georgian forces were driven out, but the region has remained unrecognized since a ceasefire in 1993.

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