Russian leader reassures Georgian rebel states

The Kremlin on Thursday fuelled fears that it was bent on annexing Georgia’s two contested provinces when President Dmitry Medvedev met the leaders of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and pledged to support and guarantee any decision they took on their status.

Eduard Kokoity, the pro-Russian leader of South Ossetia, on Georgia’s northern border with Russia, and Sergei Bagapsh, the leader of the separatist western region of Abkhazia, were called to the Kremlin to sign up to the truce terms between Russia and Georgia mediated on Tuesday by President Nicolas Sarkozy of France.

Medvedev delivered a robust statement of support for the two rebel regions, while Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, flatly dismissed Western insistence that Georgia’s territorial integrity had to form the basis for any eventual settlement of the conflict.

”We don’t want the collapse of Georgia, but the de facto situation is such that neither the South Ossetians nor the Abkhaz want to live in the same state with the person who has sent his troops against them,” said Lavrov.

The breakaway Abkhaz administration said it needed to have a significant Russian ”peacekeeping” contingent on its soil, indicating that Moscow intends to retain a heavy presence there.

President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia said there could be no Russian forces in Abkhazia, although he agreed to a ”temporary” Russian presence in South Ossetia.

But the Russians have routed the Georgians, expelling their forces completely from the two regions, and European Union officials involved in trying to cement a ceasefire say it is realistic to expect the Russians to control the breakaway provinces.

Medvedev’s statement was a green light to the Abkhaz and South Ossetians to organise votes in their territories, which would return verdicts in favour of independence or absorption by Russia.

”I’d like you to know,” Medvedev told the two leaders, ”that we support any decision taken by the peoples of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. We will not only support them, but guarantee them in the Caucasus and in the whole world … Right is on your side.”

Medvedev added that any such decisions should conform with the United Nations charter and the Helsinki Act.

While effectively controlling the two provinces, Russia, say analysts, may prefer to leave their status open and unresolved in order to use them as bargaining tools rather than incorporating them into Russia and provoking a bigger international crisis.

The Russian statements put Moscow on collision course with the West in seeking a diplomatic settlement to the Caucasus conflict.

Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, is to meet Medvedev in Sochi on the Black Sea on Friday. Her spokesperson said on Thursday it was ”sacrosanct for Germany” that ”the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia are not called into question in future talks”.

But Lavrov insisted that any diplomatic formula that sought to settle the conflict would be ”useless” if it mentioned Georgia’s territorial integrity. ”Any reference to the territorial integrity of Georgia would simply be seen as an insult, a deeply human insult.”

The tentative peace formula unveiled by EU negotiators on Wednesday makes no reference to Georgia’s territorial integrity, although a statement issued by EU foreign ministers stressed that any peace pact had to be based on respect for Georgia’s recognised borders. —

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