Russia refuses outside help to ease rising tensions with Georgia

Shaun Walker
Saturday 12 July 2008 00:00 BST

Moscow has refused requests to seek international arbitration over its increasingly tense standoff with Georgia as the government in Tblisi threatened to shoot down any Russian planes that flew over its territory.

Georgia's ambassador to Russia flew back to Tbilisi yesterday, having been recalled after Russia admitted sending fighters to overfly Georgia's breakaway republic of South Ossetia on Wednesday.

The regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, part of Georgia during Soviet times, have been described as "frozen conflicts" since the early 1990s, when vicious wars left them de facto independent and heavily dependent on Russian support. But in the past months, the frozen conflicts have been thawing quickly, as both sides accuse the other of provocation and the threat of renewed conflict looms.

Georgia has accused Russia of several incursions into its airspace in the past few months, including an incident where an unmanned Georgian spy drone was shot down over Abkhazia, but Russia has always denied its planes were involved. This week's incident was the first time Russia admitted an incursion. The Foreign Ministry statement said the flights were to prevent a potential invasion of South Ossetia by Georgian forces and "cool hotheads in Tbilisi". Georgia responded furiously, withdrawing its ambassador from Moscow and calling on the international community to condemn Russia. It denies considering a military solution to either the Abkhazia or South Ossetia conflicts.

Russia mounted the overflight while the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, was in Tbilisi. She gave her support to the pro-Western President Mikhail Saakashvili, and said Russia "needs to be a part of solving the problem and not contributing to it". Tbilisi says the Russian peacekeeping forces in Abkhazia and South Ossetia are a hindrance to the peace process and wants an international force to replace them.

Ms Rice proposed talks to discuss Abkhazia, involving Europe, the US and Russia, as well as the Georgians and Abkhaz, a proposal the Russian Foreign Ministry brushed off. "We don't see any reason for anyone's mediation in settling relations," a source in the ministry told Interfax news agency.

In recent weeks, a series of bomb blasts have rocked Abkhazia, causing several casualties. The Abkhaz authorities blame the Georgians and say the attacks are aimed at disrupting the tourist season. Thousands of Russians visit Abkhazia's palm-fringed coastline each summer for bargain-basement holidays, and the money they spend is a main source of revenue for the impoverished region.

Georgian officials deny any involvement with the blasts and suggest they are caused in local gang wars or by a sinister Russia-sourced campaign aimed at discrediting Georgia. "These bombs were clearly meant to break Georgia's image," said Temuri Yakobashvili, Georgia's Minister for Reintegration. "Whenever the international community start showing the will to become engaged, we see these weird bombings, and increased military rhetoric from the Russians."

Mr Saakashvili, whose moves to bring Georgia into Nato have angered Moscow, said military conflict with Russia was not an option. But Nikoloz Rurura, deputy chairman of Georgia's national security commission, told AP that Russia would have to "collect the shattered fragments" of its planes if it pulled a similar stunt again.

Georgia and a history of invasion

Georgia has a long and turbulent history dating back to prehistoric times. It even featured in Greek myth, as the land of the golden fleece sought by Jason and the Argonauts. It has suffered invasions from nations as diverse as the Medes, the Persians and the Romans.

In modern times, relations between the small Caucasus country and its formerSoviet overlord have been strained since Mikhail Saakashvili came to power in the rose revolution of 2003 and promised to integrate Georgia with Nato and the West.

Abkhazia and South Ossetia insist they were joined to Georgia only under Stalin and deserve to be independent. The Georgians say that the two territories are an integral part of their land, and, in addition, they want the return of thousands of Georgian refugees driven out in the 1990s.

Russia has supported the separatist territories and handed out passports to residents. It has peacekeepers in the two regions. In 2006, Georgia arrested four Russian officers for spying. In retaliation, Russia cut all transport and postal links to Georgia. Flights were recently resumed but Russia still bans Georgian wine and mineral water.

The situation has deteriorated since Dimitry Medvedev succeeded Vladimir Putin as Russian President. Hopes that relations might improve have been dashed.

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