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Georgia-Russia Tensions Continue to Simmer

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 describes recent developments there and looks at whether a new Russian president might defuse the strained relations between Moscow and Tbilisi.

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.

Ronald Suny, from the University of Chicago, says under international law, both regions are considered part of Georgia.

"The problem, however, is that at the end of the Soviet period and at the beginning of the period of Georgian independence, both of these regions rebelled against the central Georgian government which was then in a kind of fiercely nationalist mood - and de facto made themselves independent entities under the protection of the Russians," he said. "There was a lot of fighting, people migrated out of the area, Abkhazia came under the control of the Abkhaz leadership, [South] Ossetia under the Ossetians - and both of them are being protected by the Russians. There has been a ceasefire, though occasionally there are some clashes since 1994."

Tensions between Georgia and Russia increased last month when Moscow decided to step up its commercial and political ties with the two separatist regions - moves that infuriated the Georgians.

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 Russia.

In late April, tensions intensified even further when an unmanned Georgian reconnaissance plane - or drone - was shot down over Abkhazia. Georgia 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.

Heightened tensions have forced Russia and Georgia to increase the number of troops in the area with each side accusing the other of bringing the region to the brink of war.

Many experts, including Ronald Suny, say neither side wants a major conflict in that volatile region.

"Obviously, the Georgians don't want a war. It seems to me that they would face certain defeat by the Russians - humiliation perhaps," he said. "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."

Many analysts say a contributing factor to strained relations between Tbilisi and Moscow was the strong personal animosity between Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili and former Russian president - now prime minister - Vladimir Putin. Experts say a lot will depend on the relationship between Mr. Saakashvili and the new Russian president, Dmitri Medvedev, inaugurated May 7.

Robert Legvold from Columbia University doesn't see any sign of a positive change in relations.

"I don't think it's going to be easy because the attitude on the part of the Russians toward Saakashvili really is very widespread," he said. "And that is, they see him as reckless, as hot-headed, as very anti-Russian, as somebody who from the beginning has really cast his lot with the West and in a way that's anti-Russian. And that's not just a Putin attitude. Medvedev seems a milder personality and in the first part of his term he certainly doesn't want a military conflict with Georgia. So I think the politics of it argues for some degree of restraint on Medvedev and the Russians' part and Putin's part. But the personality issue is not going to go away because it's much more widespread than simply Saakashvili and Putin."

Jason Lyall from Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs agrees, saying he sees no change in relations between Tbilisi and Moscow despite a new Russian president.

"I really think that Medvedev is going to work within the strictures of a Putin foreign policy for the conceivable future, at least until he consolidates his own power position at home," he saysid. "So I don't think we're going to see any drastic changes. Now there may not be the personal animosity between Medvedev and Saakashvili that was there under Putin, but I still think you're going to see very much the continuation of a Putin-style foreign policy."

Many analysts say the problems between Russia and Georgia can be solved. But they say leaders of both countries must be willing to compromise - a quality that up to now has been lacking both in Moscow and Tbilisi.