Putin promises military backing for rebel Abkhazia

13th August 2009, Comments 0 comments

Putin's visit was the latest sign of Russian commitment to the lush mountainous region on the Black Sea coast, whose status remains a major bone of contention between Moscow and the West.

Sukhumi -- Prime Minister Vladimir Putin pledged Russia's military backing for Abkhazia in any new conflict with Georgia, as he visited the rebel Georgian region Wednesday for the first time since Moscow recognised its independence.

Putin's visit was the latest sign of Russian commitment to the lush mountainous region on the Black Sea coast, whose status remains a major bone of contention between Moscow and the West.

It was his first trip to the region of 250,000 since Russia recognised Abkhazia and fellow breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia as independent following the five-day war with Georgia which started on August 7 last year.

Georgia, which insists that Abkhazia and another rebel region South Ossetia are an integral part of its territory, angrily denounced the visit as a provocation and accused Moscow of increasing tensions in the Caucasus region.

"Russia is showing and will show economic, political and, if necessary, military support to Abkhazia," Putin said at a news conference after talks with rebel leader Sergei Bagapsh in the rebel capital Sukhumi.

"There will not be a return to the previous situation" of before the 2008 war when Abkhaz independence was not recognised by Russia, he added.

He also urged the United Nations and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) must recognise Abkhazia's independence if their monitors were to be sent there.

"Abkhazia and Russia do not oppose foreign observers from various organisations, including the UN and the OSCE. But this must be based on reality.

"Corresponding agreements must be made with Abkhazia, having recognized its sovereignty," he said.

UN and OSCE monitors have withdrawn from Georgia's conflict zones after Russia vetoed extending their mandates.

Russia caused an outcry from the West when it recognised pro-Moscow Abkhazia as independent after the August war with Georgia. Only distant Nicaragua has so far followed the Kremlin's move in recognising South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

In an interview with Abkhaz media before his visit, Putin announced that Russia was planning a half-billion dollar package to boost its security presence in the region amid continued tensions.

"Russia will deploy forces in Abkhazia. We will build a modern border-guard system.... All these measures are additional serious security guarantees for Abkhazia and South Ossetia," Putin said.

"All this will cost about 15-16 billion rubles" (463 million dollars/328 million euros, he added.

He later said that Russia would spend 10.9 billion rubles (350 million dollars) in 2010-2011 for the economic development in Abkhazia.

Donning a white coat, Putin was earlier shown round a maternity ward Bagapsh, where two male twins had been born minutes before his arrival.

In honour of Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev, the pair were named Vladimir and Dmitry.

Sukhumi lies just south of the Russian city of Sochi which is to host the 2014 Winter Olympics in a major event for Russia's prestige. Moscow is keen to prove the region's stability to the world ahead of the Games.

The Georgian foreign ministry called the visit "a provocation carried out quite in the tradition of Soviet special services," in apparent reference to Putin's past in the KGB.

The visit is "yet another attempt to destabilise the situation and escalate tension in the Caucasus region," the ministry said in a statement.

Georgian MP Giorgi Kandelaki, deputy chairman of foreign affairs committee, said the visit "represents an illegal crossing of Georgia's borders, which is a crime."

Putin said he could not rule out another conflict in the tense Caucasus region as long as Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, Moscow's arch foe, remained in power.

"Given today's Georgian leadership it is impossible to exclude anything," he told Abkhaz media.

The region was known as a prime holiday destination for Russians and people from other former Soviet republics. But Abkhazia's 1992-1993 battle for independence from Georgia reduced the economy to ruins.


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