Russia's NATO envoy says offering Georgia membership track would bolster separatists

MOSCOW: Putting Georgia on track to join NATO would deepen the divides in the strategically located country and bolster two separatist regions' bids for international recognition, Russia's ambassador to NATO said Tuesday.

The warning from Dmitry Rogozin, in a telephone interview with The Associated Press, appeared to be part of a Russian effort to avert further NATO expansion. It came before an early April summit during which NATO is expected to consider offering Georgia an official route to alliance membership.

Doing so, Rogozin said, would push Russia and others to recognize the independence claims of Abkhazia and South Ossetia — which Moscow has warned were boosted by Western recognition of Kosovo — and cloud NATO's future.

"Russia is trying to persuade the NATO members, first of all the Americans, that they shouldn't joke around — not just with Georgia but with the whole perspective for the future of NATO," he said. "The question is whether they hear us or not."

Russia has opposed NATO's eastward expansion and seems particularly concerned about the prospect of membership for Ukraine and Georgia, two former Soviet republics whose leaders have annoyed Moscow by turning toward the West.

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili has built strong ties with the United States and sought NATO membership for Georgia as part of a drive to lessen Russia's influence on the Caucasus Mountain nation, located on a chief westward route for Caspian Sea oil and gas.

Saakashvili has vowed to restore government control over Abkhazia and South Ossetia. But Rogozin argued that by conducting a referendum on NATO membership in January without including the breakaway regions, Saakashvili's government was suggesting Georgia would join NATO without them.

"If NATO ... opens this entry plan for Georgia, and Abkhazia and South Ossetia remain outside this plan, it would mean that they have just been cast to winds of fate — that Georgia itself is voluntarily excluding Abkhazia and South Ossetia from its territory," Rogozin said.

That would force Russia and other countries to consider recognizing their independence, he said.

"Russia cannot recognize a territory that is part of another state, but if that state does not want to consider the territory a part of it, then not only Russia but everyone else will have to return to this question," Rogozin said. He added that "probably it would be necessary to recognize them, because they will be republics outside of Georgia."

Russia officially acknowledges Georgia's territorial integrity but has supported Abkhazia and South Ossetia, giving most of their residents Russian citizenship. Russia announced last week that it was lifting trade sanctions imposed on Abkhazia after it broke from government control in a war in the early 1990s.

Russia has denounced Western nations for recognizing Kosovo, warning that recognizing the independence of the Serbian province would encourage separatists worldwide. Abkhazia and South Ossetia appealed to the world last week to recognize their independence, citing Kosovo as a precedent.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said Moscow will not rush to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Analysts say Russia is more likely to use the possibility as a tool in its efforts to stem NATO's expansion.

Lawmakers in Russia's parliament are expected to discuss Abkhazia and South Ossetia Thursday, but the ITAR-Tass news agency quoted a vice-speaker as saying there would be no decision of recognition.

"The parliament hearings will include rational, interesting and effective exchange of opinions, but no decisions will be taken," Leonid Slutsky said, according to ITAR-Tass. Russia acknowledges Georgia's territorial integrity and "will not suddenly change its position and announce the opposite," he said.

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