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Medvedev makes first visit to Abkhazia since Georgia war

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Sunday made a surprise visit to Abkhazia, his first trip to the breakaway Georgian region since Moscow’s war with Tbilisi two years ago.

Visiting on the second anniversary of the conflict, Medvedev assured Abkhazia’s rebel leader Sergei Bagapsh of Russian support for his statelet and said he had no regrets about recognising Abkhaz independence.

In the wake of the August 2008 war, Moscow recognised Abkhazia and fellow rebel region South Ossetia as independent states — a move so far followed by only a handful of countries and condemned by the West.

“It was not a simple decision,” Medvedev said. “But time has shown that it was the right decision. The existence of the peoples of South Ossetia and Abkhazia was under threat.”

“If that decision had not been taken, the situation now would be completely different,” he added.

The 2008 war saw Russian forces pour into Georgia after fighting broke out over South Ossetia, and later over Abkhazia itself, prompting the worst post-Cold War crisis between Russia and the West.

Russian official news agencies confirmed that the visit was the first by a Russian president since Moscow recognised Abkhazia’s independence.

Georgia, which along with most of the international community insists the region is an integral part of its territory, reacted with exasperation, saying Medvedev would be better off dealing with Russia’s wildfire crisis at home.

“I think it would be better if the Russian president were focused on domestic problems. I think maybe he is trying to distract attention,” Deputy Prime Minister and Reintegration Minister Temur Yakobashvili told AFP.

“They are still playing a game that they have lost. These territories are now recognised as occupied territories and these kinds of trips will not change that or add anything positive to the region.”

A buoyant Medvedev visited the local concert hall, a school rebuilt with Russian funds and chatted to Russian tourists on the Black Sea embankment of Abkhazia’s main city Sukhumi.

“I regret nothing. If we had not recognised Abkhazia and South Ossetia we would not be drinking coffee here. More likely, there would have been a prolonged, bloody conflict. We prevented a bloodbath,” he said.

Abkhaz separatists waged a civil war with Georgia in the 1990s after the break-up of the Soviet Union that killed several thousand people and left 250,000 people, mostly ethnic Georgians, as refugees.

Since Moscow’s declaration of its independence, Abkhazia has been boosted by significant Russian aid and visits by large numbers of Russian tourists. But its economy remains stricken by the lack of international recognition.

In an embarrassment for Moscow, only Venezuela, Nicaragua and the tiny Pacific island state of Nauru have followed its move to recognise the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

“We will develop good relations with Abkhazia, we will develop economic relations and we will develop relations in the sphere of security,” Medvedev added.

Medvedev said there was every chance that Abkhazia could flourish, adding: “Now it is very important to to continue relations in the economic and social spheres.”

Bagapsh thanked Medvedev on behalf of the Abkhaz people “for finding time your complicated schedule” to visit the rebel region.

After the brief war, Russian forces withdrew into South Ossetia and Abkhazia and the ceasefire has held up without any major clashes despite continued tensions.

Residents of South Ossetia also commemorated the war, lighting candles and listening to a requiem mass overnight in the main square of its capital Tskhinvali.