Georgia's breakway region of Abkhazia declared today that it would ask Russia
to recognise its independence in a move that threatens to trigger a new
crisis in the Caucasus.
The Abkhaz parliament said that it would send a formal request for recognition
to President Dmitri Medvedev in Moscow tomorrow. Deputy speaker Vyacheslav
Tsugba said: "The people of Abkhazia intend to ask the Russian
leadership to recognise Abkhazia."
The Speaker of Russia's upper house of parliament, the Federation Council,
said that legislators were ready to support the request and to extend
recognition to South Ossetia too. Sergei Mironov told the Interfax
news agency: "The Federation Council is ready to recognise the
independent status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia if that is what the people
of these republics want and also if there is a corresponding decision by the
Mr Mironov's deputy, Svetlana Orlova, announced an emergency session of the
Federation Council for Monday to discuss recognition of Abkhazia and South
Ossetia as independent states.
Abkhazia and South Ossetia are recognised internationally as parts of Georgia,
although both have been de facto independent since breaking away from the
central government in Tbilisi in vicious wars during the early 1990s.
Abkhazia wants independence and South Ossetians want to reunite with their
ethnic kin inside Russia in North Ossetia.
Moscow has funded both for years and distributed Russian passports to their
residents, justifying its intervention in South Ossetia last week by the
need to protect Russian citizens.
Mr Medvedev has already pledged to "make the decision which unambiguously
supports the will of these two Caucasus peoples". But any Kremlin move
to recognise the breakaway regions would trigger condemnation in the United
States and Europe, which have repeatedly insisted on respect for Georgia's
It would almost certainly lead to a fresh confrontation, as President Mikheil
Saakashvili appeals for international aid to prevent Russia annexing
Georgian land. Nato declared its support for "Georgia’s independence,
sovereignty and territorial integrity" at yesterday's emergency meeting
of foreign ministers.
But President Medvedev and his mentor, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, will
point to the precedent established in Kosovo, despite continuing Kremlin
opposition to its independence from Russia's ally Serbia. Mr Putin has
already warned the West that Kosovo would set an example for separatists in
the countries of the former Soviet Union.
Temur Yakobashvili, Georgia's Minister for Reintegration, sought to play down
the development, saying: "It's the police who must deal with people
like the leaders of separatists in Abkhazia, not me."
Mr Saakashvili has long argued that any declaration of independence by
Abkhazia is meaningless because at least 200,000 ethnic Georgians were
expelled from the region after the war 16 years ago and remain refugees. He
has insisted that they be allowed to return home, a move rejected by the
separatists who argue that the Abkhaz would be a minority in their own
Thousands of Georgians have fled or been driven from their homes in South
Ossetia since the conflict broke out last week. Aid agencies estimate that
more than 100,000 people have been displaced by the fighting and Russian
occupation of the Georgian city of Gori.
Russian forces continued to man checkpoints on the main road out of Gori
today, the nearest just 25 miles from Georgia's capital Tbilisi. Foreign
Secretary David Miliband, visiting Tbilisi, accused Russia of "not
living up to its word" in pledging to withdraw troops.
Mr Medvedev has now said that all but 500 soldiers would be pulled out of
Georgia by Friday, though Russia has insisted that it will continue to
patrol a buffer zone of Georgian territory seven kilometres beyond the
border of South Ossetia.
The deputy head of general staff, Colonel General Anatoly Nogovitsyn, told
reporters in Moscow that 64 Russian soldiers had died and 323 had been
wounded in the fighting with Georgia. Russia had previously declared that it
lost 74 soldiers, with 170 wounded.
Abkhazia stretches along 137 miles of stunning Black Sea coastline as the
western fragment of Georgia's border with Russia, backing onto the Caucasus
mountains in a total area of just over 3,000 square miles. The Russian
ruble, not the Georgian Lari, already circulates there and many Abkhazians
stream across the border each day to seek work on construction projects in
the nearby resort of Sochi, which will host the 2014 Winter Olympics.
Abkhazia was a Russian protectorate from 1810 until the Red Army incorporated
the Caucasus into the Soviet Union after the Bolshevik revolution. Joseph
Stalin merged Abkhazia into Georgia in 1931, although it enjoyed a degree of
autonomy within the unified Soviet republic.
When Georgia declared independence in 1991 as the Soviet Union was collapsing,
Abkhazia sought to break free from Georgia to establish its own state.
Georgian forces were driven out, but the region has remained unrecognised
since a ceasefire in 1993.