(RFE/RL) -- Russia and the Georgian rebel region of Abkhazia today signed a deal allowing Moscow to establish a military base on its soil, further raising tensions with Georgia.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Abkhaz separatist leader Sergei Bagapsh witnessed the signing of the deal by their defense ministers, following talks at the Kremlin in Moscow today.
Russia's Interfax news agency says the agreement will allow Russia to use and update the infrastructure of an existing military base, as well as to form a joint group of forces. Interfax said the land base has its headquarters located in the port town of Gudauta, just north of the capital, Sukhumi, and already has 1,700 servicemen.
The document is valid for the next 49 years, after which it will be automatically prolonged once every five years.
Ahead of today’s signing, Abkhaz Deputy Defense Minister Garri Kupalba said the base would eventually accommodate at least 3,000 troops, including units of Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) border guards.
Following the ceremony that saw the signing of a series of other bilateral agreements, Medvedev said the documents meet Russia's international commitments.
"These documents are fully consistent with our notions for the development of cooperation with Abkhazia and meet our international obligations," Medvedev said. "And, most importantly, these agreements provide a framework for the peaceful development of Abkhazia as an independent state."
Medvedev spoke alongside Bagapsh, who expressed his thanks to Russia.
"I would like on behalf of the Abkhaz people and on my own behalf to express my enormous gratitude," Bagapsh said. "Thank you for the fact that we are here at the heart of Russia -- at the Kremlin. We are here among friends, as a recognized state, among people who understand perfectly what is going on."
Bagapsh's Moscow visit is his first official "foreign" trip following his inauguration for a second term as president earlier this month. Bagapsh was declared the winner of Abkhazia's December presidential election, which were officially ignored by the West.
Western powers and the NATO alliance have repeatedly expressed concern that a Moscow-led military build-up in Abkhazia threatens Georgia's territorial integrity.
In an interview with RFE/RL's Georgian Service, Georgian Minister for Reintegration Temur Iakobashvili decried the new plans as illegal.
"The signing which took place in Moscow is, first and foremost, a direct violation of the six-point [ceasefire] agreement, devised by the [French President Nicolas] Sarkozy and signed by the Russian president," he said. "This is a violation of international norms, and an attempt to maintain -- through any feasible form -- the occupying forces in Abkhazia and in the Tskhinvali region [South Ossetia], against the will of Georgia."
The Black Sea region and the mountain territory of South Ossetia broke away from Georgia in separatist wars in the early 1990s.
Moscow recognized the two territories as independent states following a five-day war between Russia and Georgia over South Ossetia in August 2008 that ended with the signing of a ceasefire agreement. Venezuela, Nicaragua, and the Pacific Ocean island state of Nauru are the only countries to have followed suit.
Russia's dominance of Abkhazia has become nearly total, with 4,000 to 5,000 Russian land, air, and naval troops believed to be deployed in the region. Russian forces are building facilities for a naval base in Ochamchire on the northern coast. Moscow has also been granted control over the territory's borders, airport, and railway system.
Moreover, Abkhazia is dependent on Moscow for state aid, and trade, and foreign investment. Most Abkhaz residents carry Russian passports in order to be able to travel abroad and communicate predominantly in the Russian language. And the Russian ruble remains the territory's official currency.
Also today, the lower house of the Russian parliament, the State Duma, adopted a statement marking the 200th anniversary of "Russia's patronage over Abkhazia."
ITAR-TASS quoted the document as saying that in effect, the peoples of Abkhazia and Russia form "one people."