Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, in a U.N. General Assembly speech Friday, accused Russia of what he termed a "gangster occupation" of the disputed Georgian territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Tensions over the nominal Russian "peacekeeping" presence in the two areas have been rising.
The dispute over the two breakaway provinces, where the Georgian government says Moscow is actively supporting pro-Russian separatists, has been simmering for years, but largely without much global attention.
In a sharply worded General Assembly speech, President Saakashvili said the territories are under what he termed a "gangster occupation" by the Russian peacekeepers, who have been there for more than a decade.
He said Moscow's hope is that the international community will lose interest in the two areas, and "reward the results of ethnic cleansing."
The confrontation over the disputed areas became more acute recently after Russian President Vladimir Putin suggested that Moscow might support independence for Serbia's U.N.-administered Kosovo province if Abkhazia and South Ossetia were allowed to separate from Georgia.
In his U.N. speech, President Saakashvili bristled at the idea, calling it deeply immoral and an example of 19th Century politics.
"I want to remind all of you that my country's territories, just like yours, are not for sale and exchange," he said. "And any hint of a precedent for Abkhazia and South Ossetia is therefore both inappropriate and reckless. The foundation of modern peace and security in Europe is based directly upon the very principle of respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty. Indeed, it is the cornerstone of the contemporary international order."
The Georgian leader said if Moscow persists in making what he termed "this dangerous linkage" and undermines the existing order, the impact would be far-reaching and open a "Pandora's box" of separatist conflict not only in the Caucuses, but in many parts of the world.
Moscow has not endorsed independence for Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but long-running talks with Georgia on a political settlement have stalled.
At a meeting on the sidelines of the General Assembly Thursday, NATO foreign ministers endorsed stronger ties between the alliance and Georgia, which has made clear its aspirations for eventual NATO membership.
NATO Secretary-General Japp de Hoop Scheffer said there would be a more intense dialogue with the Tbilisi government, and said it is of great importance to find a peaceful solution to the territorial disputes.
Moscow reacted Friday, with the Russian Foreign Ministry saying that if Georgian entry into NATO came about, it would seriously affect Russian interests and have a negative impact on the fragile situation in the Caucuses.