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Russia to Assume Defense Role in Georgia's Rebel Republics

Russian President Dmitriy Medvedev signed agreements in the Kremlin with Abkhaz leader Sergei Bagapsh and South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoity that give Russia responsibility for defense of the borders between Georgia and the two breakaway republics.

The Russian Border administration being established by the agreements grants it full immunity from the civil and administrative jurisdiction of both republics. Local authorities will be prohibited from entering Russian property without consent of the Russian border patrol chief.

Abkhazia and South Ossetia declared independence following Georgia's conflict with Russia last August. Only Nicaragua has followed Moscow's lead in recognizing that independence.

In Tbilisi, Georgian Interior Ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili told VOA the Russian move is not unexpected.

Utiashvili said the agreement represents another step toward Russian annexation of the two regions. That step, he said, shows it is designed to absorb those areas into Russia, both de facto and de jure, which is why Russia started the war (in August), Utiashvili said.

Russia has said it fought the war to defend Abkhazia and South Ossetia against Georgian aggression.

Russian President Dmitri Medvedev referred to the conflict during Thursday's signing ceremony, saying it happened too recently to justify NATO exercises in Georgia scheduled to begin May 6.

Mr. Medvedev said he wants to make special mention that potential negative consequences from decisions (to go through with the NATO exercises) will completely and thoroughly be the responsibility of officials who adopt them.

Georgian political analyst Romaz Sakbarelidze at the Strategic Research Center in Tbilisi noted the NATO exercises were planned long before the August conflict, and said it would send the wrong political signal to cancel them now.

The analyst said a war is being waged between Russia and the West, and Georgia is a battleground.

Meanwhile, Moscow is protesting the expulsion of two Russian diplomats from NATO headquarters in Brussels. The NATO move is in response to last year's spy scandal in Estonia in which one of that country's defense officials was jailed for passing alliance secrets to Moscow.

The Russian Defense Ministry issued a statement saying the expulsions are an obvious provocation by forces opposed to improvement of Russian-NATO relations. Russia's NATO Ambassador Dmitri Rogozin said his country will respond.