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Georgian FM Says South Ossetia Could Be Annexed Like Crimea

Georgia -- Tamar Beruchashvili, appointed Foreign Minister, undated
Georgia -- Tamar Beruchashvili, appointed Foreign Minister, undated

WASHINGTON -- Georgian Foreign Minister Tamar Beruchashvili has warned that Russia could annex the breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia as it did Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula.

Beruchashvili told RFE/RL in an interview that "the next move is on [South] Ossetia; there are signals that the Crimea-like scenario could be repeated and South Ossetia could be annexed."

She said South Ossetia could hold a referendum as Crimea did in March that would be used to show that the local population wants to join Russia.

"That can be well organized, it's not a problem for Russia," she said.

Russia recognized Georgia's South Ossetia region as an independent country in 2008 after Russia waged a brief war with Georgia.

South Ossetia's Russian-backed, de facto leader, Leonid Tibilov, has said Russia and South Ossetia will sign a pact strengthening ties in the coming months.

Beruchashvili said that the substance of that agreement would involve "more integration" with Russia than a strategic pact signed by Russia and Abkhazia’s self-styled government in November that strengthens Moscow's economic and military ties to the breakaway Georgian region.

The planned Russia-South Ossetia agreement would provide “a new opportunity of absorbing these territories in the military, economic, social orbit of Russia," she said. "There will be Russian pensions for the residents of Abkhazia and South Ossetia."

Beruchashvili said there are some 11,500 Russian soldiers in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

She said that Russia continues to make "destructive moves," including signing the treaty with Abkhazia.

As a result, Beruchashvili said, Georgia and Russia suspended an informal dialogue on trade issues. She said she was "not optimistic" that the dialogue would resume anytime soon.

Georgia and Russia have not had diplomatic relations since the 2008 war.

Beruchashvili expressed wariness about trade with Russia trade. "We see this market as a trap," she said. "It's a very unpredictable market."

Nevertheless, Russia was Georgia's third-largest trading partner in 2014, accounting for 7.4 percent of its foreign trade, according to Georgian government data.

"Any moment Russia can enact again an embargo," she said, referring to a 2006 ban on Georgian wine and mineral water that Moscow lifted in 2013.

Discussing the crisis in Ukraine, Beruchashvili noted that Georgia had imposed sanctions against some of the same individuals blacklisted by the EU over Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the deadly violence in Kyiv's Independence Square in February.

She said Tbilisi could impose other Ukraine-related sanctions as well, including visa bans.

Beruchashvili became foreign minister in November, six days after joining a slew of resignations in the government in a shake-up that included the dismissal of top officials.

The U.S. State Department expressed "concern" over the dismissals, though Beruchashvili rejected any suggestion that the shake-up indicated a change in Georgia's Western-oriented foreign policy.

"There was no political crisis. It's a part of democratic process, and coalitions build up, split, and ministers come and go," she said.

Beruchashvili was in Washington to meet with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and other U.S. officials.

"Ukraine is not the isolated case. I hope our partners see all these developments in the big picture," she said.

She warned that Moscow’s support for South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Moldova’s breakaway Transdniester region "are components of one big strategy of Russia."

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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