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Russia: Moscow Boosts Ties With Georgian Breakaway Regions

(RFE/RL) Outgoing Russian President Vladimir Putin has said his country will boost ties with Georgia's two pro-Moscow breakaway regions, a move quickly condemned by the United States, European Union, and NATO, as well as Georgia itself.

Putin on April 16 ordered his government to recognize some documents issued by separatist authorities in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and to tighten links with businesses and organizations registered in the two pro-Moscow provinces.

The EU and NATO voiced "deep concern" at the move, with NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer urging Moscow to reverse the decision.

U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack, meanwhile, condemned Russia's actions as "political mischief."

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Kamynin sought to deflect criticism, saying Moscow's efforts to consolidate ties are not aimed at provoking a confrontation with Georgia.

"Our actions with regards to Abkhazia and South Ossetia do not mean that Russia has chosen the course of confrontation with Georgia," Kamynin said on April 16. "We favor the withdrawal of all sanctions and restrictions that hinder the social and economic development of the region. We've proved this by restoring air and sea transport links with Georgia and by other steps, which are in fact a positive alternative to the course taken by the current Georgian leadership. The implementation of these measures will help to strengthen security and stability in the Caucasus region."

His reassurances have done little to soothe the government of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, however, who has vowed to bring the breakaway regions back into Tbilisi's fold. Saakashvili is scheduled to preside over an emergency government session called to discuss the situation.

'Gross Violation'

In a statement issued following an emergency meeting of Georgia's Security Council on April 16, Foreign Minister David Bakradze denounced Russia's actions as "legalization of the de facto annexation process" of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Temur Iakobashvili, Georgia's reintegration minister, told RFE/RL's Georgian Service that Russia is breaching international law.

"This represents a gross violation of all international norms, when one country interferes with another country's internal affairs, without asking the latter anything," Iakobashvili said. "This can easily be defined as an open annexation, done by legal means -- no longer a covert one. It is not necessary to bring in troops there. Besides, Russian troops are already there anyway. We are dealing with the Russian Federation's obvious attempt to violate all existing international agreements, and take over parts of a neighboring country's land."

Putin's directives come as Moscow seeks to consolidate its presence in the two provinces. Russia recently lifted economic sanctions and announced the creation of semi-official "embassies" in both regions.

Moscow has stopped short of recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but it has close, informal ties with both provinces. It provides financial assistance and has issued most of their residents with Russian passports.