Analysis: Georgia-Russia conflict heats up

By STEFAN NICOLA, UPI Correspondent   |   Sept. 22, 2006 at 2:03 PM
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BERLIN, Sept. 22 (UPI) -- Georgia, a country troubled by conflicts with Russia over two domestic breakaway regions, is in danger of falling back into post-communist violence, as relations between Moscow and Tbilisi are at their worst.

For the past decade, Russia and Georgia have bickered over the status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, regions which were plunged into internal violence sparked by local separatists after the country's cessation from the Soviet Union. When the fighting ended in 1993, several hundred thousand Georgians had been driven out from the regions.

Last year, South Ossetians voted for independence in a referendum, but the international community did not accept the result of the vote.

Recently the situation took a turn for the worse: Earlier this month, South Ossetian forces shot down a helicopter with Georgia's defense minister on board. Several days later, Georgian authorities foiled what they claim was a coup d'etat supported by Russia, which Moscow vehemently denied.

"If we continue to drive the situation in existing formats, with existing actors and with the dominant power of Russia ... we will end up in violence," Georgian Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili told the EU Observer.

Russia is the far more attractive partner for the two regions when it comes to economic prosperity; although the new Georgian government -- implemented after the peaceful Rose Revolution --managed to nearly eradicate corruption, a real economic boom, like the ones seen in the post-Soviet Baltic states, has yet to grip the country.

Georgia, in a bid to elevate its international standing, aims for inclusion in NATO and -- eventually -- the European Union.

"Very soon we will be ready for a membership action plan with NATO," Georgian Parliament Speaker Nino Burjanadze said in Thursday in Berlin, at a speech organized by the Council on Foreign Relations, a German think tank. She added that NATO accession could come as early as 2007.

Burjanadze accused Russia of keeping the breakaway conflicts simmering because of Moscow's own political ambitions.

"Russia that way wants to stop Georgian aspirations for NATO membership," she said.

In a bid to defuse those alleged attempts, the Georgian government wants to promote foreign investments -- mainly from the West -- not only to spark economic growth, but "also because this will benefit our political stability and independence from unpredictable partners," Burjanadze said, in an obvious reference to Russia's sudden import ban on Georgian wine and mineral water in March.

Russia argues the import ban was put in place to protect consumers, but Georgia sees it as a sanction.

Moscow in turn has been irritated by Georgian armament; the country has agreed to close military cooperation with the United States -- several Georgian units are trained by U.S. forces, and Georgia has troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Moreover, military expenditures have increased roughly six-fold in the past three years, which Russia and the breakaway regions see as a preparatory measure to solve the conflicts militarily.

"Both sides in recent months have fueled the conflict with their rhetorical saber-rattling," Uwe Halbach, an expert on the region at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, Thursday told United Press International in a telephone interview.

Burjanadze said diplomacy was the way to end the conflicts, countering the Russian allegation that Georgia's intended solution was a military one.

"We will try everything, and until the very last moment, to solve the conflicts peacefully," she said. "We don't want to have a war."

Burjanadze added that the best first step to loosen the deadlock was to replace Russian peacekeepers -- "who are not neutral" -- in Abkhazia and South Ossetia with international forces.

Both the United Nations and the European Union have been careful not to commit such peacekeepers, although the EU has said it wants to become more active in the region, a plea Burjanadze said was in the body's own interest.

"You can't talk about Mediterranean security without considering Black Sea security," she said.

At the beginning of the year, Georgian security agents at the South Ossetian border intercepted a container with the illegal cargo of enriched uranium, intended to be sold in the Middle East, according to Georgian officials.

But just how much the EU really wants to become involved remains to be seen, experts say.

"If Brussels wants to achieve something, they really have to step on Russia's feet, and I don't know if they're ready to do that," Halbach told UPI.

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