Georgia has long objected to the presence of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) peacekeepers, who have been based in Abkhazia and a second breakaway region, South Ossetia, since both territories declared independence in the early 1990s. Tbilisi accuses the peacekeepers -- who are mainly Russian, despite their CIS mandate -- of serving Moscow's interests and preventing a peaceful resolution of the separatist conflicts.
Georgian officials had hoped to use an April 30 meeting in Brussels of the NATO-Russia Council to propose big changes to the peacekeeping format. But Moscow beat Tbilisi to the punch, announcing on April 29 that it plans to send an unspecified number of Russian peacekeepers to the separatist regions to counter what it says is the threat of an invasion by Georgia.
The Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement that "the presence of Russian peacekeepers remains the decisive factor in preventing an escalation of tension," and also announced plans to set up 15 new observation posts in Abkhazia.
'Allowed By Agreements'
Speaking at a news conference with top EU officials, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the decision is in keeping with agreements on Abkhazia set by leaders from the CIS.
"The peacekeepers are in Abkhazia on the basis of agreements reached by the conflicting sides," Lavrov said. "These agreements specify the maximum number of peacekeepers allowed, and our peacekeepers are there in the numbers allowed by these agreements."
Russia currently has some 1,500 peacekeepers in Abkhazia, compared to the approximately 3,000 stationed there when the CIS peacekeeping mission began in 1994. Under a separate initiative, Russia has at least 600 troops in South Ossetia.
The Russian Foreign Ministry on April 29 claimed that Georgia has massed 1,500 troops of its own in the Kodori Gorge region straddling the Abkhaz-Georgian border. Lavrov handed over documents to the EU that he says prove that Georgia has "acquired a huge number of armaments."
Lavrov said Russia is duty-bound to protect "Russian-speakers" in the breakaway regions and that Moscow will be forced to take "retaliatory actions" if Georgia initiates military action.
A spokesman for Georgia's Interior Ministry, Shota Utiashvili, has denied that there has been any increase in forces from the Georgian side.
Georgian Prime Minister Lado Gurgenidze told journalists in Tbilisi on April 29 that it will only serve to heighten tensions if Russia adds more manpower to the peacekeeping force.
"We believe this step, if is it taken, will cause extreme destabilization in the region," Gurgenidze said. "And beginning from now, we will consider any serviceman, and any piece of military equipment, brought into the territory of Georgia -- even within the [CIS] framework of the 3,000 troops -- as illegitimate and as potential aggressors."
The EU's foreign-policy and security chief, Javier Solana, who attended the April 29 meetings with Lavrov in Luxembourg, characterized the Russian decision as unwise.
"Even if the increase in [Russian] peacekeepers is within [the CIS] limits, if we want to diminish the perception of tension, I don't think it is a wise measure to increase now," Solana said. "And I said that, very friendly, to the Russian minister."
Solana expressed support for the territorial sovereignty of Georgia and said Brussels is working with Russian and Georgian leaders in the hope of de-escalating what he called "a perception of tension in the region."
Much has happened in recent weeks to feed such a perception.
The countries' months-long war of words was rekindled in early April when Georgia sought a Membership Action Plan (MAP) for joining NATO during the alliance's summit in Bucharest. NATO decided against offering a MAP, but did promise eventual membership. Russia's subsequent expansion of ties with South Ossetia and Abkhazia led Tbilisi to accuse Moscow of attempting to annex the self-declared republics as a way of punishing Georgia for its NATO aspirations.
The two countries have also sparred over the recent downing of a Georgian reconnaissance drone over Abkhaz territory, leading to mutual accusations of UN violations.
And on April 29, Georgia's negotiator on Russia's entry to the World Trade Organization -- a long-standing bone of contention between the two states -- confirmed that Tbilisi plans to block Moscow's accession to the economic bloc.
'Outrageous And Irresponsible'
Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili attempted to smooth things over with the Abkhaz and South Ossetian people during a televised address on April 29 in which he described Russia as an "outrageous and irresponsible force" attempting to "involve us in confrontation."
"The more we speak about peace, the more this [third] force speaks about war," Saakashvili said. "We're speaking about demilitarization, but this force is speaking, on your behalf, about intensive militarization. We're speaking about free economic zones, but this force is speaking about new military bases and new checkpoints. We're speaking about developing economic ties and opportunities, but this force -- again, on your behalf -- is speaking about increasing the military contingent."
The Georgian president said he was "absolutely certain that neither the Abkhaz nor the Ossetian people, being small in numbers, want confrontation." Rather, he said, "It is the force that leaves you no right of choice and speaks on your behalf with us and with the rest of the world that needs confrontation."
Interfax on April 30 quoted the leaders of both unrecognized republics as rejecting Saakashvili's olive branch out of hand. De facto Abkhaz President Sergei Bagapsh said that "the existence of Abkhazia and Georgia in a unified state is impossible," while his South Ossetian counterpart, Eduard Kokoity, accused Georgia of conducting a policy of genocide against the Ossetians and stressed that "the Ossetian people have made their choice in favor of an independent state."
Bagapsh expounded on Abkhazia's stance to RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service on April 30. "The situation [in Abkhazia] is normal and stable. It is a working situation, as we say. There is nothing out of the ordinary," he said. "There is some movement from the Georgian side in one part of the Kodori Gorge and we're monitoring that situation. So, we're aware that they're concentrating [troops] there and we're monitoring the situation."
Speaking from Russia's Republic of Adygeya, Bagapsh said that "the most important goal for us, for our people, is independence. We can talk about peace, we can hold negotiations, we can sign an agreement not to resume military actions -- but no more than that."