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Georgian Separatist Regions Cause Friction Between Moscow, Tbilisi

11 October 2007

Relations remain tense between Russia and Georgia several weeks after Georgian forces killed two Russian military officers in the Georgian separatist region of Abkhazia. In this background report from Washington, VOA Senior Correspondent André de Nesnera looks at the major source of friction between Moscow and Tbilisi - the issue of the breakaway Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Abkhazia is located in the northwestern corner of Georgia while South Ossetia is situated in the north-central part of that country. Both areas border Russia.

Robert Legvold with Columbia University says the two regions are technically part of Georgia, but each has a strong separatist movement with different goals in mind.

"The Abkhaz - their objective, they maintain, is independence," he said. "They are not seeking to pull away from, separate themselves from Georgia and then become a part of Russia - but become independent. The international community does not recognize the claimed independence on the part of Abkhazia. But they have a functioning government and the writ of the Georgian government does not extend to most of the Abkhaz territory."

Legvold says South Ossetia has another approach.

"Again, it's a separatist movement with a separate government," he said. "The authority of the Georgians extends to, as a practical matter, to some portions of South Ossetia, including a portion that's guided by a man named [Dmitri] Sanakayev who is sympathetic to the Georgians - he's South Ossetian but he is sympathetic to the Georgians. But the remainder of South Ossetia is under a different leadership, very oriented toward Russia and in this case, the South Ossetians do seek to be reincorporated into Russia, not the least because there is a section of South Ossetia - North Ossetia - that is part of the Russian Federation."

A major source of friction between Moscow and Tbilisi is the presence of Russian troops in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Ostensibly, they are there as peacekeepers, but Tbilisi says their presence only reinforces separatist tendencies there - a charge rejected by Russian officials.

Last month, Georgian forces killed two Russian military officers in Abkhazia.

"The Russians are saying they were carrying out anti-terrorism exercises and the Georgians are saying: 'What on earth were you doing carrying out anti-terrorism exercises in our country?' These are issues; these are problems," said Olga Oliker, a Russia expert with the Rand Corporation.

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili has vowed to bring the secessionist regions back into the country.

Oliker says such statements worry Moscow.

"For Russia, I think they feel that Saakashvili's government especially has been very provocative in its actions and statements, talking about taking back control of these breakaway regions which are inhabited by a lot of ethnic Russians and Russia has offered all folks living there Russian citizenship," she said. "The Russians, though, are really concerned that there will be some sort of crisis in Georgia, particularly involving the separatist regions and Russia will have no choice but to intervene militarily - and that's not something the Russians want. So they see in Georgia a bit of a security threat."

Experts, such as Ronald Suny with the University of Chicago, say it will be difficult to resolve that contentious issue.

"Given that there are these two regions, Abkhazia and [South] Ossetia which have separated themselves from Georgia de facto, if not de jure, it's the Russians who, because of their support of those separatist regions, have prevented the Georgians from reintegrating them," he said. "Now it must be said that the Abkhaz and many, many Ossetines like that Russian support and they don't want to be reintegrated into Georgia. And so Saakashvili has got a dilemma: how to find a modus vivendi, some way to bring those regions back under Tbilisi's rule."

Suny and other experts do not believe that the full reintegration of Abkhazia and South Ossetia into Georgia will happen anytime soon.

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