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Georgia/Russia: Visiting Abkhaz Leader Continues To Court Russia

The president of Georgia's separatist republic of Abkhazia vowed yesterday to strengthen economic ties with Moscow and bring republican legislation in line with that of Russia. But at the same time, he said he remained hopeful progress could be made toward finding a peaceful solution to Abkhazia's 13-year conflict with Georgia.

Prague, 18 August 2005 (RFE/RL) - Addressing reporters at the Moscow headquarters of Russia's Interfax news agency yesterday, Abkhaz President Sergei Bagapsh reiterated his intention to bring his unrecognized republic closer to Russia. He suggested the moves are logical "because Russia today is [Abkhazia's] main economic partner, because the bulk of the investments [Abkhazia] is getting comes from Russia."

Abkhazia seceded from Georgia in the early 1990s, triggering a war that resulted in a military defeat for Tbilisi -- thanks largely to the military assistance Russia offered separatist forces.

Since then, Moscow has been Abkhazia's main political sponsor and trade partner. As Bagapsh stressed yesterday, some 70 percent of Abkhazia's elderly currently draw their pensions from Russia's federal budget. Some 84 percent of Abkhaz have Russian citizenship.

Russia started issuing passports to residents of Abkhazia and Georgia's other unrecognized separatist republic of South Ossetia four years ago. Tbilisi has denounced the move as an infringement on its sovereignty, although Abkhaz and South Ossetians have argued that they need Russian passports to travel abroad.

Bagapsh said yesterday that all Abkhaz would have Russian citizenship within a year.

While in the Russian capital this week, the separatist president held consultations with Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov and other officials.
"As a Western-educated man and a great democrat -- as he is called in Georgia -- [Georgian President Mikheil] Saakashvili has a unique opportunity to recognize Abkhazia's independence." -- Abkhaz President Sergei Bagapsh

The RIA-Novosti news agency on 15 August quoted Bagapsh as saying his visit to Moscow would focus exclusively on economic issues.

Bagapsh confirmed reports that he had discussed with Luzhkov the possibility of selling land and some of Abkhazia's legendary seaside summerhouses to the Moscow municipality.

"I believe we should sell some of these [houses] in order to earn money that we could then reinvest in other sectors," Bagapsh said.

A businessman by training, Bagapsh has vowed to boost Abkhazia's economy with the aim of maintaining independence from Georgia.

While advocating closer ties with Russia, the Abkhaz president has also said he remains open to political dialogue with the government of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.

But he repeated that he is determined that Abkhazia will never relinquish its independence.

"As a Western-educated man and a great democrat -- as he is called in Georgia -- Saakashvili has a unique opportunity to recognize Abkhazia's independence," Bagapsh said. "Should he do that, he would be Abkhazia's most honored guest."

Bagapsh's visit to Moscow coincides with the largest military exercise ever held in Abkhazia since the end of the war in 1993.

The five-day war game -- reportedly the fourth conducted in Abkhazia since Bagapsh's election in January -- started on 15 August and involves up to 6,000 servicemen and army reservists.

Tbilisi claims the exercise violates the Sochi cease-fire agreement that effectively put an end to the Georgian-Abkhaz war because it involves use of a Russian-controlled demilitarized area.

Georgian Conflict Resolution Minister Giorgi Khaindrava has also accused Russia of funding the maneuver, saying Abkhazia does not have enough financial resources to sponsor the exercise on its own.

Bagapsh yesterday denied Khaindrava's charges. But, in a roundabout way, he implied that Moscow might be providing some form of military assistance to Abkhazia -- much as the United States and other NATO countries are currently training and equipping the Georgian Army.

"To say that Russia is funding the Abkhaz army is the same as me saying Western countries are funding the Georgian army. I've never said that, have I?" Bagapsh said. "Every country has the right to arm itself as it deems necessary."

The Abkhaz president made it clear that the ongoing exercise is designed to test his republic's ability to repel a Georgian incursion.

Saakashvili has vowed to bring Abkhazia and South Ossetia back under central Georgian control before his term expires in 2009.

The Georgian president had repeatedly said he intends to achieve this goal through peaceful means.

But there are concerns in the Abkhaz capital Sukhum that Tbilisi might nonetheless be considering a forceful solution. Abkhaz officials cite armed incidents in South Ossetia in 2004 and occasional raids conducted by the Georgian coast guard on foreign vessels bound for Abkhazia's Black Sea ports.

Bagapsh nevertheless said yesterday that he hoped Sukhum and Tbilisi would be able to sign soon an agreement on enhancing security along the demarcation line that separates Abkhazia from Georgia's mainland.

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