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Georgian Regions of Abkhazia, South Ossetia Cause Friction Between Moscow and Tbilisi

Tensions remain high between Russia and Georgia, after Georgia released last month four military officers arrested on spying charges - an accusation rejected by Moscow. The Russian government retaliated by imposing economic sanctions against Georgia. In this background report from Washington, VOA Senior Correspondent André de Nesnera looks at one major problem between the two countries: the issue of the autonomous 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, a Russia expert with Columbia University, says both regions are de facto independent states, although no country has recognized their independence.

"They - in the case of Abkhazia, use the Russian ruble as the principal currency," he said. "If there is economic intercourse, it's more with Russia and elsewhere than it is with Georgia. Critical transport links are broken. And although Georgia has recently reasserted authority over a portion of Abkhazia - an area called the Kodori Gorge - for the most part, Georgia's authority, or writ, simply does not extend to the territory. And its basic position - the Abkhaz leadership - is that they wish independence from Georgia. In the case of South Ossetia, which is linked to an ethnically related region to the north in Russia called North Ossetia, their desire is for separatism that would lead to autonomy, allowing them to be integrated into Russia. So they are different on that score from Abkhazia."

A 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 reinforces separatist sentiments there - a charge rejected by Russian officials. Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili has called for Russian troops to be replaced by an international force, but the world community has been unresponsive.

Experts say Russian President Vladimir Putin has added a new twist to the debate by linking the issue of Abkhaz independence to the status of Kosovo - a province in southern Serbia currently under the administration of the United Nations.

"This is the most dangerous end game in the current crisis because by the end of the year, the United Nations is likely to pass some kind of resolution on the question of Kosovo independence," said Russia expert Robert Legvold. "And Putin for some time has been saying - because the Russians are opposed to doing so - has been saying that if that passes, then that changes the legal standing, or the potential legal standing, in how Russia would deal with these breakaway territories. Not just Abkhazia, but Trans-Dniestria in Moldova. And when Saakashvili was in the United States [in July], he was - in private meetings - was desperately concerned that the Russians in fact may use a Kosovo independence resolution as a cover for extending recognition to Abkhazia."

Experts say regions within Russia - such as Chechnya - could also push for international recognition following a U.N. resolution on independence for Kosovo.

But Olga Oliker from the RAND Corporation says not every region in the world can claim independence.

"Just because you have a clear ethnic base of a population doesn't necessarily mean that you should have national borders surrounding that ethnic base," she said. "Some regions are more sustainable and more viable than others for a host of reasons, some of them economic and some of them political. You could also look at Kurdish regions in Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Syria - and that same argument comes up. And the fact of the matter is there are good political reasons why these regions have not been independent in the past. And yes, it is fair to revisit them from time to time, but it's also fair to occasionally decide that no, it's not appropriate for these regions to be independent."

Georgian President Saakashvili has vowed to bring the secessionist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia back into the country. But experts say at this time, it does not seem that goal will be attained anytime soon.