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Georgia-Russia Dispute Heats Up At UN As NATO Exercises Begin

Alexander Lomaia in central Georgia during the Russia-Georgia conflict in August 2008

Alexander Lomaia in central Georgia during the Russia-Georgia conflict in August 2008

UNITED NATIONS -- The rhetoric was heated as UN ambassadors from Russia and Georgia on May 5 exchanged accusations of escalating military tensions in the South Caucasus.

Alexander Lomaia, in his first press briefing as Georgia's permanent representative to the United Nations, accused Russia of seeking to build up that country's military presence in the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

His Russian counterpart, Vitaly Churkin, responded by saying it was Tbilisi and not Moscow that was aggressively seeking to increase troop numbers near the breakaway regions.

The remarks came the same day that Georgian officials blamed Moscow for a purported uprising at a Georgian military base, and just ahead of controversial NATO exercises that began in Georgia on April 6.

Speaking to reporters at a hastily arranged press conference, Lomaia firmly rejected rumors that the tank battalion participating in the attempted mutiny at the Mukhrovani base had been scheduled to participate in the monthlong NATO military exercises.

The alleged rebellion ended quickly and without violence, but sparked accusations by Georgian officials the incident had been funded by Moscow in an attempt to undermine the NATO exercises.

NATO Exercises

The Kremlin hotly opposes the exercises, despite assurances from Tbilisi and NATO that they were planned long before the August 2008 Russia-Georgia war and are not meant as a threat to Moscow.

The briefing was Lomaia's first direct encounter with the UN press corps since coming into the post in December, and he was blunt as he accused Russia of building up its military presence along the borders of the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Russia last week signed an agreement with the leaders of the two territories giving Moscow the power to guard their borders, a move which Georgia says violates the terms of the cease-fire agreement ending the August conflict.

"Russia has been consistently increasing the size of its military forces and heavy armored equipment on the occupied territories of Georgia," Lomaia said. "It has illegally deployed hundreds of so-called border guards to the administrative borderlines of Tskhinvali region and Abkhazia."

Lomaia's briefing followed earlier remarks by Churkin, who has made no secret of his opposition to the NATO exercises and has been critical of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's decision to sign a joint declaration of cooperation with NATO.

Mutual Allegations Of Destabilization

Russia, which is a permanent member of the UN Security Council, has seen already fragile ties with NATO sour since the war in Georgia. Churkin said the UN should have been more "careful" in considering a cooperation agreement with the alliance.

Churkin also accused Georgia of seeking to destabilize the postwar situation by increasing its own military presence near the breakaway regions.

"The situation in the zones adjacent to South Ossetia and Abkhazia remains unstable," Churkin said. "A buildup of Georgian troops and police units is going on -- heavy weapons, armored vehicles, and artillery are being deployed in the areas bordering South Ossetia. Georgian security personnel totaling nearly 2,500 have been concentrated there; thirty-five permanent and mobile posts have been established; active work is under way to reinforce the infrastructure of those positions."

Lomaia said Churkin's allegations were part of a strategy to disrupt the NATO exercises, which are being held as part of the alliance's Partnership For Peace program, and involve the participation of a former Soviet republic, Azerbaijan. (Kazakhstan, Armenia, and Moldova, which had been slated to participate, have pulled out.)

"The Russian ambassador's statement is yet another example of the Soviet-era propaganda, which is not factual and whose sole purpose is to mislead the international community as well as Russia's own population," Lomaia said.

Russia is the rotating president of the Security Council for the month of May.

Churkin has indicated that among his top priorities is a scheduled May 27 meeting when the Security Council is due to decide on a possible extension of the UN Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG) mandate. The current mandate is set to expire on June 15.