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New tensions between Russia and Georgia

Latest update : 2008-05-31

Russian PM Putin has approved a plan to give autonomy to Georgia's breakaway region of Abkhazia, but Georgia accuses Moscow of trying to annex the impoverished Black Sea region.

PARIS, May 31  - Russian Prime Minister Vladimir
Putin said he approved of a plan to give Georgia's breakaway
region of Abkhazia autonomy but not full independence.

But Georgia accused Moscow of trying to annex the
impoverished Black Sea region after Russia sent unarmed troops
on Saturday to rebuild a railway in Abkhazia.

Russia called the deployment "humanitarian aid". Georgia
said on Friday it had stopped spy plane flights over Abkhazia to
quell Western fears that tensions between Tbilisi and Moscow
could degenerate into war.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has offered Abkhazia,
which broke away in a war in the 1990s, a package that would
return it to Georgian control but give it autonomy, the post of
vice-president, free trade zones, and seats in parliament.

"I very much hope that the plan that Saakashvili proposed
will gradually be introduced because overall it is the right
plan," Putin said in an interview with France's Le Monde
newspaper, given on a visit to Paris and attended by Reuters.

"It just needs the other side to agree to it. You need to
conduct a dialogue," he said.

Putin's apparent support was surprising because Moscow backs
the separatists. However, his condition that Abkhazia must agree
to the plan is unlikely to be fulfilled: the separatists
rejected the Georgian plan when it was first presented.

Russian state television broadcast footage on Saturday of
columns of military trucks arriving in Abkhazia, where most of
the population have been issued with Russian passports.

"We have organised for the restoration of (Abkhazia's) roads
and infrastructure, and have sent unarmed railway troops to
carry this out," Russia's defence ministry said on its Web site

It was not clear whether the railway would bring building
materials needed for Russia's 2014 Olympics in nearby Sochi, or
if the infrastructure would be used to facilitate military
equipment. Georgia said the move was illegal.

"This is one more aggressive step by Russia against the
territorial integrity of Georgia... Annexation of Abkhazia is
under way," Georgia's Deputy Foreign Minister Grigol Vashadze
told reporters in the ex-Soviet state's capital Tbilisi.

Putin was Russian president until May when he handed over
the job to his protege Dmitry Medvedev. Some diplomats hope the
handover could lead to a more conciliatory approach towards
Georgia, an aspiring NATO member.

Medvedev is expected to hold talks with Saakashvili in
Russia's second city of St Petersburg early next month.



The row over Abkhazia has pitted Russia against Western
states that support Georgia and want to see it join NATO.

Abkhazia's separatists say they will settle for nothing less
than full independence from Tbilisi.

Since the start of this year Russia has sent in extra
peacekeeping troops to Abkhazia and intensified ties with the
separatist administration.

"Nobody needs to deploy railway troops on another country's
territory unless a military invasion is being prepared,"
Vashadze said on Saturday.

"The annexation of Abkhazia is being carried out in all
directions - trade, social, economic and legal."

An unmanned Georgian spy drone was shot down over Abkhazia
by what a United Nations report said was a Russian fighter
plane. Moscow denied involvement.

Russia says its priority is to prevent bloodshed and protect
Abkhazia from possible Georgian aggression. Some observers say
its real aim is to punish Georgia for its NATO ambitions and
seek revenge for Kosovo's split from Serbia, which it opposed.

The conflicts over Abkhazia and a second Georgian rebel
territory of South Ossetia fuel instability in a region of
strategic importance to the West because it is a transit route
for oil and gas from the Caspian Sea.

Date created : 2008-05-31