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Russia-Georgia Tensions Rise

Tensions between Russia and Georgia over the breakaway Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia trouble experts.

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

Jason Lyall at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs says both regions declared their independence from Georgia in the early 1990s. "They largely control their own territory. They have their own economies and they have broken away from Georgian central control. But they have not been recognized yet de jure or internationally as legitimate states," says Lyall. "And so really, the tension now is that these two territories want to be recognized as independent entities and Georgia wants to do everything in its power to prevent them from becoming legitimately, internationally recognized states."

Georgia's president, Mikhail Saakashvili, has made it clear that one of his major goals is to bring Abkhazia and South Ossetia back into the Georgian fold.

But Ronald Suny from the University of Chicago says relations between those two regions and Russia are extremely close. "The other day, the head of the South Ossetian region -- Eduard Kokoiti -- said, in fact, that 95 percent of his population of that tiny little republic are citizens of the Russian Federation. In these two areas, Russian money is used, Russian welfare programs still operate. People travel without visas between Abkhazia and [South] Ossetia and the Russian Federation," says Suny. "So they have been very, very integrated, not to mention that there are Russian soldiers -- let's call them peacekeepers. They're very close."

Tensions Mount

The presence of Russian troops in the region has been a source of friction between Moscow and Tbilisi. Ostensibly, they are there as peacekeepers, sent in the mid-1990s as part of a regional peace accord to end fighting between Georgian forces and local militia. But Georgia says their presence only heightens separatist leanings -- a charge rejected by Russian officials.

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

Robert Legvold at Columbia University says another incident that month heightened tensions even further. "Part of the escalating tensions in the last couple of months has been an incident in April where now an international investigatory committee has more or less established the perpetrator was a Russian jet that shot down an unmanned intelligence drone [i.e., unmanned aircraft] that the Georgians were flying over Abkhaz territory," says Legvold. "But in all cases before, the Russians denied it. On July 9, the Russians flew four jets for 40 minutes over South Ossetian territory and said they were doing it. And [they] said they were doing it in order to deter the Georgians from resorting to military action in either South Ossetia or Abkhazia. That's all very new."

The NATO Factor

Moscow's acknowledgment -- for the first time -- of sending warplanes over the volatile region coincided with the visit to Tbilisi of U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice. During her meeting with President Saakashvili, she repeated Washington's support of Georgia's bid to become a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO.

Many experts, including Ronald Suny at the University of Chicago, say that with those military over-flights, Moscow wanted to send a specific message. "The Russians want to make clear to the United States and certainly to Georgia that they are totally opposed to Georgia joining NATO. The United States has made it clear that it is willing to entertain that idea and that Georgia should be invited into the process, to eventually join NATO," says Suny. "Now for Russia, that is a very difficult thing to swallow. For Russia, the volatile and sensitive and most dangerous frontier [i.e., border] that it possesses is that north Caucasian frontier. And to have a NATO power right there with NATO troops is, for Russia, really unacceptable."

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

"What the Russians are trying to demonstrate in Georgia and to everybody else is that integration with NATO does not solve security problems -- it makes them worse. And they are finding every opportunity to do this. This is why Russians are constantly saying to the Georgians, sometimes openly, usually privately, that, 'We could solve all problems if you reconsider your course with NATO,' " says Sherr. "So the meaning is very clear. It's the purpose of Russian diplomacy to demonstrate across the region that NATO is what endangers security; NATO is what endangers internal stability in countries and that cooperation with Russia is the only way for countries to ensure their own internal stability and their territorial integrity."

Experts say another irritant for Russia is the fact that Georgian and U.S. troops are conducting military exercises at the Vaziani training area outside of Tbilisi.

Major Ryan Dillon, a U.S. Army spokesman, says, "In this particular exercise, we've got about 1,600 participants -- 1,000 being from the United States, 600 Georgian and about 10 each from Azerbaijan, Armenia and Ukraine."

Those exercises will continue until the end of July. Russia has responded by launching its own military exercises in the Northern Caucasus region involving some eight-thousand troops.

Most experts stress that the only way to resolve the difficult problems between Georgia and Russia is through diplomacy. They say those issues must be addressed 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.