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War Fears Rise Over Russia-Georgia Tension


Tensions remain high between Russia and Georgia over the breakaway Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In this report from Washington, VOA Senior Correspondent André de Nesnera says some analysts fear the crisis could escalate to a war.

The Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia declared their independence from Tbilisi in the early 1990s. And since then, every Georgian leader, including current President Mikhail Saakashvili, has vowed to bring them back under Georgia's control.

No country has recognized Abkhazia or South Ossetia as independent states. But Princeton University's Jason Lyall says Russia's relations with the two regions are very tight.

"They are very close and becoming increasingly so over time. In fact there is concern in Abkhazia and South Ossetia that Russia is annexing them very slowly, almost by stealth, that they are bringing them inside the fold. The leaderships, obviously, have close ties but now Abkhazia and South Ossetia are almost entirely dependent on Russia for their economies. And so both economies are actually now run on the ruble and they have transportation links to Russia only," said Lyall.

Tensions between Moscow and Tbilisi increased in April when Moscow decided to step up its political and commercial ties with the two separatist regions - moves that infuriated Georgian officials.

During that month, an unmanned Georgian reconnaissance plane was shot down over Abkhazia. Georgian officials said it was brought down by a Russian fighter plane, but Moscow denied the charge. An international panel investigating the incident subsequently said the drone was shot down by the Russians.

On July 8, Russia raised tensions further by flying four jets for 40 minutes over South Ossetian territory. Russian officials said the action was taken to deter Georgians from resorting to military action either in South Ossetia or Abkhazia. And unlike previous occasions, this time, the Russians took responsibility for the over-flights.

Moscow's acknowledgment of sending warplanes over the volatile region coincided with a visit to Tbilisi by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. She repeated Washington's support of Georgia's bid to become a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Analyst James Sherr, with the London-based Royal United Services Institute, says for Moscow resolving the Abkhaz-South Ossetia issue is directly linked to Georgia's NATO aspirations.

"On more than one occasion, Russian representatives have said very firmly that they would assist Tbilisi in resolving these conflicts if Georgia abandoned its pro-NATO course. And when one hears that, it is clear, therefore, that the Russians are deliberately being unhelpful at the moment: the linkage between those conflicts, Russian policy and Georgia's NATO aspirations is therefore very explicit," said Sherr.

Many experts, including Robert Legvold from Columbia University, say tensions are so high they could lead to a full-scale war.

"I do not think the Russians, despite their extreme military reaction at this point, in fact want it to get to a conflict. I cannot imagine that the Georgians do in this circumstance either. But as we know, military conflicts often occur even when nobody wants them to occur because of the way things intervene and because there are third parties," he said. "The Abkhaz too and the South Ossetians have a role to play in this and one of roles players like this have in conflicts of this sort is to act as a trigger."

Legvold and others say the only way forward is through diplomacy. They say the first order of business is to find ways to defuse the tension there and then tackle the substantive differences between Russia and Georgia over the breakaway regions.

But analysts say that would mean both sides would need to compromise. And at this stage, it appears that neither Moscow nor Tbilisi is willing to do so.

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