Russian-Georgian Tensions Mount Over Separatist Regions

By | July 7, 2008 | 8:15 PM EDT

Moscow ( - Following the peaceful resolution of a long standoff between Russia and Georgia over one separatist-minded Georgian region, the two former Soviet partners are now at odds over two other breakaway regions.

The latest tension erupted when Georgia early this week formally protested to Moscow about the alleged entry of a column of Russian military vehicles into the Georgian region of South Ossetia.

Russia maintains a peacekeeping presence in South Ossetia, a region whose pro-Russian leader, Eduard Kokoity, considers "independent."

Another breakaway region in Georgia, Abkhazia, also seeks to split from Georgia and link up with Russia.

According to Georgian officials, a convoy of more than 15 trucks crossed the border from Russia into South Ossetia last Friday. They said some of the trucks were carrying troops, missile launchers, automatic rifles and other weapons.

"Georgia demands an explanation from Russia about this provocative act, which contributes to the escalation of tension," Georgia's Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

Moscow denied sending additional troops into South Ossetia, and a Russian military official said only food, fuel, spare parts and other supplies had been sent to the Russian peacekeepers.

Kokoity described the convoy as a "humanitarian column."

But the timing of the movement has raised suspicions in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi.

Just last week, Kokoity said during a visit to Moscow he would formally ask the Russian government and lawmakers to admit his republic into the Russia Federation.

Russian parliamentary speaker Boris Gryzlov said the State Duma was ready to consider South Ossetia's request, while Duma deputy speaker Sergei Baburin warned that Tbilisi should recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia as "separate states."

Baburin also said Georgia should not attempt to export its "rose revolution" to the two territories - a reference to the popular movement which toppled former President Eduard Shevardnadze late last year, and last month ended the separatist drive of the pro-Russian leader of another Georgian region, Adzharia.

Although relations between Russia and Georgia have improved in some areas - notably the drafting of a document for economic cooperation last May - strong differences remain over the separatist issue and the continued presence of Russian troops on Georgian soil.

The leaders of both Abkhazia and South Ossetia have pledged to separate from Georgia and become parts of the Russian Federation eventually.

With tacit U.S. backing, Georgia has launched a diplomatic offensive to tackle separatism.

Last month, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili indicated a willingness to offer "special status" to the two regions, to help ease tensions.

He said he was ready to begin peace talks over any federal state model acceptable to the breakaway regions, reiterating the pledges in both the Ossetian and Abkhaz languages.

But convincing the defiant regions may take more then a few words in their native languages.

Kokoity has pledged that South Ossetia will retain its "independent state" status, and Abkhaz Prime Minister Raul Khajimba has also ruled out any type of federation with Georgia.

Another Abkhaz leader, vice president Valery Arshba, on Monday urged Russia to act as "guarantor of our independence."

A country of fewer than five million people, Georgia is strategically located on Russia's southwestern flank.

Its stability matters to the West, primarily because it lies on the route of the world's longest planned oil pipeline, carrying crude from the Caspian Sea to world markets, via Georgia and Turkey.

Both Georgia and the U.S. have been urging Russia to speed up the withdrawal of the last two of four Soviet-era military bases in Georgia.

Russia agreed in 1999 to relinquish all four bases before mid-2001, but it remains in two of them.

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