Tbilisi Fears Russian Recognition of Rebel Regions

Speculation mounts that Moscow may punish Georgia over spy scandal by recognising Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Tbilisi Fears Russian Recognition of Rebel Regions

Speculation mounts that Moscow may punish Georgia over spy scandal by recognising Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Fears are growing here that Russia may up the ante in its escalating dispute with Georgia over Tbilisi’s arrest of four Russian officers on espionage charges.

Moscow has so far retaliated by imposing economic and transport sanctions against Tbilisi, deporting Georgian citizens and clamping down on Georgian businesses on Russian territory.

But analysts now fear that Moscow may turn the heat up even further by unilaterally recognising the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. They’re also concerned that the growing tensions will provoke a new round of fighting over these territories.

South Ossetia is to hold an independence referendum on November 12.

At almost the same time, a final decision on the status of the former Yugoslav province of Kosovo is to be taken by the end of this year - which both the unrecognised republics and the Russian authorities see as an important precedent. Should the international community grant Kosovo independence, Moscow may be tempted to encourage Georgia’s rebel provinces to seek the same status.

Tensions between Russia and Georgia have been running high ever since four Russian officers were detained in Georgia on espionage changes on September 27. But Moscow’s tough response to Tbilisi’s actions is seen by many, both in Russia and Georgia, as having more to do with Georgia’s pro-western orientation and NATO membership aspirations than outrage over the arrests.

Russian president Vladimir Putin has steadfastly rejected such suggestions, saying Georgia was free to choose its allies, but the espionage controversy compelled him to retaliate.

“Any country has a right to be, and must be, sovereign and make its own choice of partners and advisors from around the world,” he said, “[but] this should not push a country into aggression. We simply had to react.”

Putin noted that the Russian officers had been arrested in the run-up to Georgian local government elections. “I don’t know whether it is a coincidence or not, but whatever it is, resolving domestic political problems by fomenting anti-Russian hysteria and fuelling military psychosis is unacceptable,” he said.

He said Russia had “no intention of ruining Georgia economically” and accused Tbilisi of preparing for a military outcome to the South Ossetian and Abkhaz conflicts.

“They [the Georgian authorities] are doing everything to settle the problems through a war: they have been building up their military strength beyond all measure, violating all previous agreements and staging acts of provocation in the conflict zone all the time,” said Putin.

Meanwhile, NATO and OSCE representatives have expressed anxiety over the Georgian-Russian rift.

Robert Simmons, the NATO Secretary-General's Special Representative for the Caucasus and Central Asia, told journalists in Tbilisi that the alliance was “worried” about the way the situation was developing.

“Even after the release of its officers, Russia has adhered to a policy that does not contribute to development of good-neighbourly relations,” he said.

OSCE Chairman-in-Office Karel de Gucht said that “normal contacts based on mutual respect should be rebuilt between Russia and Georgia”.

Former Soviet republics have come to the support of Georgia in the growing dispute.

The parliaments of Lithuania and Latvia were highly critical of Moscow’s retaliatory actions. The former expelled a Russian diplomat whom it accused of spying and “trying to influence the Lithuanian position on Georgia”.

The Georgian authorities are now keen to defuse the crisis. President Saakashvili said he was prepared to meet Putin at any time to discuss ways of restoring bilateral relations.

But the Russians have spurned the offer, with Modest Kolerov, chief of the Russian president’s foreign relations department, saying, “It’s not just a matter of… somebody taking the first step. The systemic relationship needs to be re-thought.” Kolerov said a dialogue could begin only after Georgia “gave up militarisation and hostile activities”.

As the crisis wears on, Georgian analysts believe Moscow may seek to recognise the breakaway republics as independent entities - although they point out that such a move would not necessarily have widespread support in Russia.

“Recognising the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia is no simple matter for Russia,” Alexander Rondeli, president of Georgia’s Strategic and International Research Foundation, told IWPR. “In Russia, there are diverse opinions and interests regarding the problem. It is very likely that the final decision will depend on who happens to be in Putin’s private office at the time the decision is taken. ”

International relations expert Giorgi Khelashvili believes Kosovo is sure to be declared independent by the end of the year, “whereupon we should expect a unilateral recognition by Russia of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russia’s partner states may follow its example, as well as countries that… do not support US policies.”

In that event, he said, Georgia would either start a war to clear the territories of the Russian army, or would insist on the withdrawal of the Russian peacekeepers.

Russian expert Pavel Felgenhauer rules out any possibility of Russia attacking Georgia. “In light of statements made by Russian defence minister Sergei Ivanov, one can say there will be no war,” he told IWPR.

At the same time, though, Felgenhauer said he could envisage a military escalation which might ultimately lead to Russia recognising Abkhazia and South Ossetia, “A conflict has to be unleashed first, and only then might Russia come up with the recognition issue.”

He said a conflict is likely to begin with “provocations and shootings” in and around the rebel entities, which could be used by Moscow as a pretext to deploy more troops there “in order to protect Russian citizens”.

Dmitry Avaliani is a commentator with the newspaper 24 saati, Tblisi

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