EU warns Russia against boosting troops in Georgian breakaway regions
In a sharp escalation of tensions in the South Caucasus, Russia has claimed that Georgia is set to invade its breakaway region of Abkhazia and is increasing the number of Russian troops there and in South Ossetia in response. The EU's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, has warned Russia against such a move.
"Even if the increase in peacekeepers is within limits, if we want to diminish the perception of tensions, I don't think it is a wise measure to increase now," EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said on Tuesday (29 April), adding that the union continues to defend the territorial integrity of Georgia.
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The statement came only hours after Russia had accused Georgia, a part of the Soviet Union between 1922 and 1991, of attempting to invade Abkhazia, something that Tbillisi denies.
"If Georgia puts in place the threat it has made on a number of occasions about the use of force in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, we would be forced to take retaliatory measures to protect the lives of our citizens," Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov told press, after talking to his European counterparts in Luxembourg on Tuesday.
The Russian foreign ministry has accused Georgia of sending 1,500 of its own troops and police into the upper Kodori Gorge in Abkhazia, which is still under Tblisi's control.
"A bridgehead is being prepared for the start of military operations against Abkhazia," reads a ministry statement.
Georgia has denied any plans or troop build-up, and regards the Russian move and accusations as provocative.
Prime Minister Lado Gurgenidze said: "From now on, we consider every [Russian] soldier or any unit of military equipment coming in [to Abkhazia and South Ossetia] as illegal, potential aggressors and potential generators of destabilisation."
"We consider this to be an utterly irresponsible step. We think this step will utterly destabilise this region," he added.
Meanwhile, according to AFP, Georgian interior minster Shota Utiashvili said: "This is not acceptable to us ... [Russia] cannot increase the number any further."
"It is the Russians who are taking provocative actions, not Georgia," he added. "Deploying additional troops is certainly a very provocative move."
"There has been no increase in forces from the Georgian side, nothing at all. The Russian statement is simply not true," he continued.
Maxim Gunjia, the vice foreign minister of the de facto Abkhaz Republic, said Georgia was indeed "preparing something", according to the UK's Guardian newspaper. "We expect an attack from Georgia at any time."
An individual close to the Georgian government told the EUobserver that Georgia was not planning anything "unless Russia attacks first."
"Georgia cannot afford to go to war," he said, adding that he expected NATO's North Atlantic Council to meet later today and ask Moscow to reverse its decision.
Georgia will also be looking to the international community to replace the Russian peacekeepers in the region, he said.
The Caucasian republic is to appeal to the United Nations or NATO to send an international force as it no longer views the Russian military presence in Abkhazia and South Ossetia as neutral, although it will accept continued Russian involvement in any force, so long as there are other countries involved as well.
Abkhazia and South Ossetia have been outside Georgian central government control for more than a decade after breaking away in bloody conflicts in the early 1990s. The two regions keep close ties with Moscow, which has granted Russian passports to many of their citizens.
The fragile peace is currently controlled by Russian peacekeepers - there are some 2,000 troops in Abkhazia and an additional 1,000 in South Ossetia. But Tbilisi has accused the Russian army of supplying arms and logistical support to rebels in an attempt to make problems for Gerogia's planned NATO entry.
In the last month, relations between Tblisi and Moscow have rapidly deteriorated following Russia's move to extend its links with the two breakaway republics. Last week Georgia accused Russia of shooting down a Georgian drone aeroplane over Abkhazia and on Tuesday, Tblisi announced it would block Russia's entry to the WTO.
EU-Russia talks stalled
Meanwhile, the EU has failed to offer a green light to partnership talks with Moscow due to Lithuania's objections - prolonging an already 18-month-old deadlock.
EU-Russia talks on the so-called Partnership and Cooperation Agreement are expected to be launched at a June EU-Russia summit in Siberia, but only if the bloc agrees a negotiating mandate outlining what the European Commission's manoeuvring space will be during the talks.
Lithuania has tabled several demands linked to Russian energy supplies, judicial cooperation and to frozen conflicts in Georgia and other ex-Soviet Republics such as Moldova.
"More efforts are needed to reach the agreement," Lithuanian foreign minister Petras Vaitiekunas was cited as saying by Reuters, but refused to give any timetable.
"It is not a question of time, but a question of the quality of the mandate, the quality of our partnership [with Russia]," he said.
A new round of EU talks on the mandate is scheduled for next week, with Slovenian foreign minister Dimitrij Rupel expressing confidence that the agreement "will be ready in a couple of weeks".