Georgia angry at Russia's links with rebel regions

Russia has been criticised over moves to establish legal links with the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The two territories are officially part of Georgia but declared independence in the early 1990s.

Amid the continuing international fallout over Western countries' recognition of Kosovo, it was revealed this week that Vladimir Putin had ordered Russian authorities to recognise documents issued by the separatist entities, as well as co-operate with them on trade.

The move has angered Georgia, whose pro-Western policies are at the centre of a long-running dispute with Russia, and could lead to a further decline in Russia's relationship with the West.

Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary of State, said yesterday that she had telephoned the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, to register her disapproval, while members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe expressed "deep concern" at the moves.

Temuri Yakobashvili, the Georgian Minister for Reintegration, said the Russian moves amounted to the "creeping annexation" of the territory and accused the Russians of "using the same logic as Hitler did in Czechoslovakia".

Speaking from the Abkhazian capital of Sukhumi, the separatist Foreign Minister, Sergey Shamba, said the Russian move would allow Abkhazia to make an "economic breakthrough".

He said: "Kosovo has changed the international legal situation, and we think this should enable the Russians to recognise us [as an independent country]."

The US and European Union have said that Kosovo was a "unique case" and cannot be applied to other conflicts, whereas Mr Putin repeatedly stated in the run-up to Kosovo's independence in February that he didn't see why the former Serbian province deserved independence more than Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

The Russian move comes just a few weeks after the Georgians presented a plan for the reintegration of Abkhazia into Georgia, allowing it broad autonomy. The plan was backed by Western countries.