EU Condemns Saber Rattling Russia and Georgia Face Off over Breakaway Regions

Russia and Georgia are trading harsh words in a dispute over two breakaway regions of Georgia, accusing each other of massing troops and stoking tension. The European Union has warned Russia to back down.

Russia's Defense Ministry has announced a buildup of peacekeepers in two rebel regions of Georgia, saying Georgia has threatened people in both areas. The latest saber rattling comes after weeks of increased tension between Moscow and Tbilisi. But the EU says Russia's latest move is ill-advised.

"Even if the increase in peacekeepers is within limits, if we want to diminish the perception of tensions, I don't think it is a wise measure," said the EU's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, at a news conference on Tuesday evening.

Russia has peacekeeping forces in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which both broke away from Georgian control during the 1990s. The regions want independence or absorption into Russia.

Tensions have been rising between Tbilisi and Moscow over these regions for weeks, especially after Russia helped to thwart Georgia's bid to join NATO at a summit in early April. On April 22, Tbilisi accused the Russians of shooting down an unarmed Georgian drone plane over Abkhazia, releasing video that purportedly showed a Russian MiG fighter in Georgia's airspace. Now Russia has accused Georgia of massing 1,500 troops on the Abkhazian border.

Georgia says the troops are just a police force, and that it has no plans to invade. But a spokesman for Russia's Foreign Ministry said Tuesday that Russian troops would be sent to Abkhazia to counter "destabilizing measures taken from the Georgian side."

Militarizing Tensions

Abkhazia is a Black Sea enclave bordering Russia. Like other parts of Georgia, it was a popular vacation spot for Russians during the communist era. Its people are ethnically distinct from Georgians, and most of them have been issued Russian passports.

The rebel regions are being used as pieces in an ongoing chess game between Tbilisi and Moscow. Tbilisi sent home four Russian army officers  in 2006, saying they were spies. Russia retaliated by cutting travel and postal links, effectively ending trade with Georgia. It re-established trade with Abkhazia in March 2008, then eased other restrictions with Georgia,  including a visa ban, in April.

Except for a Russian missile that landed in a Georgian potato field  in August 2007, though, it's only in the last few weeks that the tensions have edged toward war. Normally the presence of Russian troops in Abkhazia and South Ossetia is governed by rules that allow Georgia to authorize any important changes.

But Georgian Foreign Minister David Bakradze told the Associated Press that the latest troop increase had been decided on by Moscow without consulting Tbilisi. "That is a very, very dangerous decision," he said Tuesday. "They did it by violating all legal procedures."


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