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Russia-Georgia Relations Remain Tense

Tensions remain high between Georgia and Russia over the breakaway Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Abkhazia is located in the northwestern corner of Georgia while South Ossetia is situated in the north-central part of that country. Both areas border Russia.

Robert Legvold with Columbia University says the two regions are technically part of Georgia, but each has a strong separatist movement. "Both of them are territories that after civil violence and war in the early 1990s have refused any integration with the titular state -- with Georgia. Abkhazia maintains that it seeks and deserves to receive independence," says Legvold. "Initially, South Ossetia didn't ask for full independence; it asked for an option of being able to join North Ossetia, which is a part of Russia and integrate itself into Russia. But more recently, it has been pushing as well for independence."

Following an Example?

Many experts, such as Ronald Suny from The University of Chicago, say Kosovo's declaration of independence from Serbia earlier this year and its recognition by many Western states, has reinforced separatist tendencies in various regions Russia considers to be within its sphere of influence. "Now everything is up for grabs. In some ways now, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, perhaps Chechnya, Nagorno-Karabakh, Transdniestria, other places that have been in revolt or have tried to declare their autonomy or independence, now have a claim that: 'Look, Kosovo is a good example, there's a precedent. We should have the same right.' So this has encouraged, in fact, the Abkhaz and the South Ossetians to pressure Russia to push for greater autonomy or independence," says Suny.

While Russia has consistently opposed Kosovo's independence, experts say it has used the fear that other regions will do the same to intervene more in Georgia's separatist regions. Robert Legvold says that last month, Russian officials decided to increase their cooperation with Abkhazia and South Ossetia. "April 16th -- they announced that they would broaden their commercial ties with the two territories. And secondly, they would create official representation in these territories. So in many ways, Russia is a far more present force than is the government of Georgia," says Legvold.

Those moves infuriated the Georgians who accused Russia of increasing tensions between the two countries. Another major source of friction between Moscow and Tbilisi is the presence of Russian troops in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Ostensibly, they are there as peacekeepers. But Tbilisi says their presence only heightens separatist leanings there -- a charge rejected by Russian officials.

Shots Fired

In late April, tensions intensified even further when an unmanned Georgian reconnaissance plane, or drone, was shot down over Abkhazia. Georgian officials say it was brought down by a Russian fighter plane, but Moscow denies any involvement. Several other drones have been shot down in recent weeks.

Jason Lyall from Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs says the drones were brought down over Abkhazia's Kodori Gorge. "The Kodori Gorge is basically the one piece [of territory] that Georgia still hangs on to with Abkhazia. And the tension now is that the Russian forces are at the north end of the gorge; the Georgian forces are at the south end of the gorge," says Lyall. "And the Georgians are periodically probing through the gorge to the north to figure out where the Russians really are. And that's where the drones are in fact being shot down in this particular region as the Georgians just try to figure out where are the Russians and how many Russians are there exactly."

Lyall says the latest tensions have forced Georgia and Russia to increase the number of troops in the region. "This is what Georgia is trying to figure out with the drones. It is actually completely dependent on aerial photography to figure out how many Russians are there. Under the 1994 treaty between the two that actually brokered the peace, Russia is allowed to legally have three-thousand peacekeeping soldiers split between Abkhazia and South Ossetia. And by all accounts, they are at least at three-thousand now," says Lyall.

Brink of War?

Russian and Georgian officials have accused each other of bringing the region to the brink of war. The University of Chicago's Ronald Suny warns that the situation is dangerous. "Obviously, the Georgians don't want a war. It seems to me that they would face certain defeat by the Russians, humiliation perhaps. On the other hand, the Russians don't want clashes in that area, when in fact very nearby at Sochi, they are already preparing for [the] Winter Olympics [in 2014]. Clashes in a nearby region would jeopardize that sporting event. So all in all, this is a very unfortunate event -- both drifting toward a clash that neither of them actually wants at the moment," says Suny.

Jason Lyall from Princeton University agrees. "The danger is not that Georgia wants war or Russia wants war, it's that there will be some conflict on the ground that nobody really wants -- soldiers shooting at each other, more drones crashing, another plane being knocked down, things of this nature," says Lyall. "And I think the tensions are there enough that this could spiral out of control quite quickly. So I don't think that either side actually wants war, but the danger now is that you have so many troops in this very small region and bad history between the two -- and anything can happen at this point."

So how do you defuse tensions? According to Ronald Suny, "You do it through statesmanship. You do it through both sides sitting down and talking. We're learning all over the world that you can't just talk to friends; you've got to talk to opponents, to enemies as well."

Most experts say these problems are not insolvable. But they say Russia's new president, Dmitri Medvedev, must address the issue of Russian-Georgian relations quickly in order to keep the situation from spiraling out of control.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.