Georgia Asks Russia to Drop Support for Separatists

MOSCOW (Reuters)–Georgia urged Russia on Monday not to ruin mutual relations by supporting separatists in the provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and called for dialogue. Georgia’s suspicions that Moscow is backing separatists in the Black Sea region of Abkhazia and mountainous South Ossetia have soured relations between the two ex-Soviet states ever since the provinces broke away after bloody wars in 1992-93.

Tension escalated earlier this year when Georgia’s President Mikhail Saakashvili–who came to power in a bloodless coup last November–launched a concerted campaign to restore the territorial integrity of his Caucasus nation.

Last week Moscow–which has peacekeepers in both regions bordering Russia–issued a series of angry statemen’s accusing Tbilisi of preparing to seize back South Ossetia by force and threatening the safety of Russian tourists in Abkhazia.

"Abkhazia and South Ossetia are not worth Russia ruining its relations with Georgia forever," Interfax news agency quoted Georgian Defense Minister Georgy Baramidze–dispatched to Moscow to negotiate a compromise–as saying.

Russia has accused Georgia of building up military force in South Ossetia in violation of a 1992 peace deal and provoking violence in the region–where more than half of the non-Georgian majority have Russian passports.

Moscow was outraged when Saakashvili vowed last week to shoot at boats ferrying Russian tourists along the Black Sea coast to Abkhazian resorts. More than 80 percent of Abkhazians also have Russian passports.

Georgia in turn accuses Russian peacekeepers of siding with separatists and wants their mandate changed. Top Georgian officials have accused Moscow of using separatism as a card in a political game to retain influence over West-leaning Georgia.

Last week Saakashvili–a US-trained lawyer–flew to Washington to seek for support in his confrontation with Moscow. But Secretary of State Colin Powell advised him to continue dialogue with Russia and promised to help with "good offices."

In May–Moscow cooperated with Saakashvili when he seized control over the independent-minded Black Sea region of Ajaria–whose leaders had close ties with Russia. Ajaria–populated by ethnic Georgians–had never claimed full independence.

Baramidze made clear that Tbilisi could be looking for similar deals on Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

"The problem of conflicts in these regions can be solved in the interests of Georgia and Russia," he told Interfax. "If one looks pragmatically at the situation–our countries have common interests."


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