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Russia: Duma Treads Warily Over Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Transdniester Status

Parliamentary leaders in Russia have called for the establishment of diplomatic missions in the Georgian breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and in the Moldovan separatist region of Transdniester.

The State Duma's council, which comprises the leadership of the lower house of parliament, held hearings on the issue on March 13. The full Duma is expected to take up the issue next week.

Although the Duma leadership stopped short of recommending full-fledged recognition, the move has clearly raised the stakes in the ongoing struggle over the status of the three pro-Moscow separatist enclaves. It is unclear what form the new "missions" would take.

"I have proposed that the government examine the issue of opening Russian missions on the territory of these three unrecognized republics," Aleksei Ostrovsky, head of the Duma's Committee for CIS Affairs, told reporters after the hearings. "The Foreign Ministry is prepared to look into such a possibility. We also think it is necessary to change the form of economic and trade cooperation with these republics."

Russian officials have long said that Kosovo's declaration of independence -- announced on February 19 -- would set a precedent for other breakaway regions. Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Transdniester have since argued that they, too, should be granted independence.

Moscow, however, needs to walk a fine line on the issue, since recognizing the three separatist republics could have repercussions in Russia's own breakaway region, Chechnya.

Ostrovsky said that, in the short term, Russia can take steps that fall shy of formal recognition.

"We will propose that the Russian government take some steps toward changing the format for relations with these unrecognized republics. They are bothered by being called 'unrecognized republics,'" Ostrovsky said. "In the near future this could be changed, but this does not mean fast recognition. We could move toward using the international legal term 'suspended status' for these republics. That would be logical."

Speaking to reporters after the March 13 session, Duma deputy Sergei Markov said it was unlikely that Moscow would move toward formal recognition in the near future.

"I think it is obvious that there will not be a final decision about these republic's status," Markov said. "Kosovo has been seen as a precedent. But the precedent of Kosovo is not only that they have declared their independence and not only that the United States, Germany, and France have recognized them. The Kosovo precedent is also that it will not become a normal, widely recognized, independent state in the near future."

Many politicians favor holding back on the issue of recognizing the breakaway regions until the moment when Moscow can use it to gain the maximum advantage.

Markov said one such moment would come if Georgia, which is hoping to advance its membership bid at NATO's Bucharest summit in early April, joined the alliance.

"Russia and other governments are trying not to open a Pandora's Box," Markov said. "We will decide the status of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Transdniester only when that issue is really pressing. It is not out of the question that it could be provoked by other events. It is the opinion of many Russian politicians, for example, that if Georgia wants to join NATO, then they can do so without Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Many support this position."