Russian President Vladimir Putin has visited Georgia's breakaway region of Abkhazia and reiterated Russia’s support for the separatists.
The Georgian government condemned the August 8 visit, which coincided with the ninth anniversary of the five-day Russia-Georgia war, as a “cynical action.”
Following the 2008 war, Georgia and Russia broke off diplomatic relations and Moscow recognized Abkhazia and another Georgian breakaway region, South Ossetia, as independent countries. Only a few countries followed Russia's lead.
"The most important thing is that we have entirely special relations with Abkhazia," Putin said as he met with the region’s separatist leader Raul Khadzhimba in the Black Sea resort of Pitsunda.
"We reliably guarantee the security, self-sufficiency, and independence of Abkhazia,” he added. “I am sure that will continue to be the case."
Putin also said that the two sides need to find ways to develop Abkhazia's economy to create jobs, adding, "This is what we will be talking about today."
After the talks, the Russian president said that he considers it possible to soon ease controls and customs procedures on the border with Abkhazia to encourage travel and facilitate trade.
The anniversary of the 2008 war was marked in Georgia with the political leaders paying tribute to the Georgian soldiers who died in the conflict.
Following a wreath laying ceremony at a military cemetery in the outskirts of Tbilisi, Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili told journalists that the Georgian government is “building a united, strong, prosperous, democratic, truly European Georgia in order to make it a common home for Georgians, Abkhaz, and [South] Ossetians.”
President Giorgi Margvelashvili, who also visited the cemetery at Mukhatgverdi, said, “No Georgian will ever tolerate the [Russian] occupation.”
Meanwhile, the Georgian Foreign Ministry said Putin’s visit to Abkhazia “serves for legitimization of forceful change of borders of the sovereign state through military aggression, ethnic cleansing, and occupation."
The ministry also urged the international community to respond to Russia's "aggressive steps."
Russia maintains thousands of troops in Abkhazia and South Ossetia in what Georgia considers an occupation, and Georgian authorities have accused Moscow and the separatists of taking control of additional territory in recent months.
A NATO spokesman said that Putin's trip was “detrimental to international efforts to find a peaceful and negotiated settlement.”
“NATO is united in full support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia within its internationally recognized borders,” Dylan White said in a statement. “We will not recognize any attempts to change the status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as regions of Georgia.”
During a visit to Tbilisi last week, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence reaffirmed Washington's support for Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and denounced Russia’s “aggression” and “occupation” of Georgian territory.
With reporting by TASS, Interfax, civil.ge, AFP, AP, and Reuters