SOCHI, RUSSIA - President Vladimir Putin signed a “strategic partnership” agreement with Georgia's breakaway region of Abkhazia on Monday, angering Tbilisi, which said Moscow was looking to annex the territory.
Russia and Georgia fought a war in 2008 over Abkhazia and a twin region of South Ossetia, provoking the worst crisis between Moscow and the West since the fall of the Soviet Union.
Moscow recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent countries following the war and Monday's move comes just seven months after Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimea and threw its weight behind separatists battling in eastern Ukraine.
Putin and Abkhazia's leader Raul Khadzhimba signed the agreement in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, which sits just across the Russian border from the separatist region.
Georgia's Foreign Minister Tamar Beruchashvili denounced the move as “a step towards annexation of Abkhazia by the Russian Federation” and urged the international community to condemn it.
“The signing of this document will have a negative impact on the security situation in Georgia's occupied territories as well as in the broader context of European security,” she said, adding that the deal infringed Georgia's territorial integrity.
Under the terms of Monday's accord, Putin said Russia would grant 5 billion roubles ($111.4 million) to Abkhazia, which has a population of just 240,000 from a cocktail of ethnic groups.
The agreement, posted on the Kremlin website, envisages developing a “joint defense and security space” and stipulates Russian “protection of the state border of the Republic of Abkhazia with Georgia”.
It also obliges Russia to facilitate “in every possible way” growth of Abkhazia's international ties and promote its recognition by other countries.
Moscow said it would also ease requirements for Abkhazia residents to obtain Russian citizenship, but Moscow has not voiced any plans to annex the territory.
Georgian President Georgy Margvelashvili called the agreement “absurd and illogical”.
Some Georgian officials say Putin may now sign a similar deal with South Ossetia, which already depends on Russia's financial and political support, although it has less strategic, geographic importance for Moscow than Abkhazia.