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Moscow Signs Defense Pacts With Breakaway Georgian Regions

Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov (right) with President Dmitry Medvedev (center) during their visit to South Ossetia in July -- Russian officials also said Moscow will "do everything to ensure the security of the Russian state, the security of t
(RFE/RL) -- Russia has signed defense agreements with Georgia's breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions, allowing Moscow to maintain military bases in the rebel regions for the next half-century.

In a separate move also likely to ratchet up tensions in the Black Sea region, Russia announced that it would seize any Georgian ship it finds off Abkhazia's coast.

Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov signed the military agreements in Moscow with his Abkhaz and South Ossetian counterparts, Merab Kishmaria and Yury Tanayev.

Serdyukov said the pacts are aimed at protecting the people of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Both territories were unilaterally recognized as independent by Russia following its war with Georgia in August 2008.

Shota Malashkhia, chairman of the Georgian parliament's committee on the restoration of territorial integrity, criticized the moves as attempts to stoke conflict.

The Russian missile cruiser "Moskva" at Sukhumi's port
"This is mainly an attempt to escalate tension. Russia's ability to take real aggressive actions, however, is limited and Abkhazia has neither the ability nor the wish to do so," Malashkhia said.

"I think Russia will focus on low-level provocations rather than large-scale military actions."

Defense Cooperation

The defense agreements allow Russia to station 1,700 troops in each territory and are valid for 49 years, with the option for continuous five-year renewals after that.

The Russian military headquarters in Abkhazia is to be in the Black Sea port town of Gudauta, while its headquarters in South Ossetia is to be in the region's capital, Tskhinvali.

The defense agreements do not include hundreds of additional Russian border guards, who are also stationed in the two territories under prior agreements. Russia has already agreed to help defend both regions' airspace and to train their militaries.

Russia has also agreed to defend what Abkhazia describes as its territorial waters, but which according to international law remains under Georgia's jurisdiction.

Shipping Standoff

Georgia, which has banned international trade with Abkhazia without its permission, has been blockading the separatist province and has detained ships en route there.

In response, Abkhazia's rebel leaders, who accuse Tbilisi of trying to suffocate the region's economy, have threatened to destroy Georgian ships that enter its territorial waters.

The Interfax news agency quoted Viktor Trufanov, deputy head of Russia's border service, as saying that Moscow will "do everything to ensure the security of the Russian state, the security of the Abkhaz state," by seizing Georgian ships in waters claimed by Abkhazia.

The head of Georgia's border-protection service, Zaza Gogava, said Tbilisi would continue to patrol what it considers its lawful territorial waters.

"How can I comment on such a senseless threat? Russia makes such statements quite often," Gogava said.

"But in reality they have taken no actions. They are threatening to seize ships, but where are they going to seize these ships? We will control that which belongs to us."

The Georgian Navy consists of 19 ships, mostly patrol boats of various sizes. Most of its larger vessels, including the missile boats "Dioskuria" and "Tbilisi," were destroyed or badly damaged in the war with Russia.

Almost all investment in South Ossetia and Abkhazia comes from Russia, which was the first country to recognize the territories' independence declarations. Only Nicaragua and Venezuela have followed Moscow in recognizing the regions as independent.