Monday, August 25, 2008

Russia to recognize Georgia rebel regions

By Oleg Shchedrov and Aydar Buribaev

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian lawmakers approved on Monday a resolution recognizing the independence of two rebel regions of Georgia, a move likely to worsen relations with the West already strained by Moscow's military intervention there.

The upper house of parliament, or Federation Council, voted 130-0 to call on President Dmitry Medvedev to recognize the rebel regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent.

Georgia and Russia fought a brief war earlier this month over South Ossetia after Tbilisi sent in troops to try to retake the province by force, provoking a massive counter-attack by land, sea and air from Moscow.

"Today it is clear that after Georgia's aggression against South Ossetia (that) Georgian-South-Ossetian and Georgian-Abkhazian relations cannot be returned to their former state," upper house speaker Sergei Mironov said during the debate.

"The peoples of South Ossetia and Abkhazia have the right to get independence."

The lower house, or State Duma, was due to approve a similar resolution later in the morning.

"We will look today at the appeals from the peoples of Abkhazia and South Ossetia to recognize the independence of these republics, I think that all these decisions will be accepted," said Duma speaker Boris Gryzlov.

The non-binding resolutions could either signal Medvedev's intentions or be intended to strengthen his hand as he negotiates the status of Russian forces in Georgia with the West.

EU president France, which brokered a ceasefire in the conflict, which has killed hundreds of people and made thousands more homeless, called a September 1 meeting of EU leaders to discuss the crisis and review the bloc's relations with Russia.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said ties with Moscow could be scaled back if its troops were not fully withdrawn.

But French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner was more cautious. "We're not talking about sanctions," he told France Inter radio.

"Getting a ceasefire, stopping hostilities and the troop withdrawal in eight days, that's quite a lot already. We'll have to see. We have to take stock of the situation."

Moscow, which has pulled back the bulk of its forces from central and western Georgia, says the residual troops are peacekeepers needed to avert further bloodshed and protect South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

But Georgia and the West object to the scale of the Russian-imposed buffer zone adjoining the two rebel regions, which hands Moscow pressure points on key oil and trade routes through Georgia to the Black Sea.

The United States, which has said Russia's bid to join the World Trade Organization could suffer, on Sunday delivered 55 tonnes of aid aboard the warship USS McFaul a gesture of support for its close ally, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.


Formal recognition by Russia of the independence of South Ossetia and the Black Sea province of Abkhazia, would put it on a collision course with the United States and other Western nations which insist on Georgia's territorial integrity.

On August 14 Medvedev told separatist leaders in Moscow that Russia would support a drive for self-determination by Abkhazia and South Ossetia and vowed to guarantee any such move.

However, the Kremlin could -- as it has done in the past -- ignore pleas by parliament that would exacerbate its confrontation with the West, and instead use domestic pressure as a bargaining chip in future negotiations with the West.

Russia has so far resisted repeated calls for formal recognition by South Ossetians and Abkhazians, although Kremlin officials have hinted that the Western recognition of Serbia's breakaway region of Kosovo has created a precedent.

But diplomats say the Kremlin is also worried about separatist pressures in some of Russia's own Caucasus regions and may be reluctant to grant South Ossetia independence for fear of creating a domino effect at home.

Moscow says its armed intervention averted a "genocide" of Ossetians by Georgia, and Russian leaders have said it is unthinkable the rebels would agree to reunite with Georgia.

Despite repeated demands for a complete Russian pullback to positions before the conflict, the West lacks leverage over a resurgent Russia, whose oil and gas it depends on.

(Additional reporting by Guy Faulconbridge in Moscow and James Mackenzie in Paris, writing by Michael Stott and Oleg Shchedrov; Editing by Charles Dick)

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