Russia denounces Georgia for North Caucasus visa scheme

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Moscow on Thursday furiously denounced Georgia's lifting of visa requirements for residents of Russia's volatile North Caucasus, accusing Tbilisi of seeking to destabilise the region.

Georgia, which has no diplomatic relations with Russia since the two countries' 2008 war, announced this week it would no longer require residents of the North Caucasus to acquire visas to enter the country.

Russia's foreign ministry said in a statement that the move was aimed at sowing divisions and would boost tensions.

"The decision of the Georgian authorities to unilaterally declare a visa-free regime for Russian citizens living in several North Caucasus republics can only be seen as a provocation," the ministry said.

"This attempt to divide the Russian population into different categories goes against the norms of civilised interstate dialogue."

The ministry said the move was related to Tbilisi's attempts "to destabilise the situation in the North Caucasus to distract attention from the Georgian leadership's destructive policy concerning South Ossetia and Abkhazia."

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's spokeswoman, Manana Manjgaladze, said Tuesday Tbilisi had lifted visa requirements for residents of North Caucasus regions including Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia and North Ossetia.

She said the move was aimed at "deepening dialogue between Caucasian peoples" in a region with traditionally strong cross-border links.

The move followed the re-opening earlier this year of the only useable land border crossing between Russia and Georgia, at the Zemo Larsi checkpoint in the Caucasus Mountains on the border with North Ossetia.

Local Russian residents had previously been required to travel to Moscow to obtain Georgian visas at the Swiss embassy, which is representing Georgian interests in Russia since the two countries broke off relations.

Moscow has repeatedly accused Tbilisi of seeking to destabilise the North Caucasus, including by financing militants involved in an increasingly deadly insurgency. Tbilisi has denied any involvement.

Russia and Georgia fought a brief war in August 2008 over Georgia's Moscow-backed rebel regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which Moscow subsequently recognised as independent states.

© 2010 AFP

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