- The Washington Times - Monday, May 14, 2007

TBILISI, Georgia — Emboldened by its growing alliance with the United States, Georgia is increasing pressure on two separatist territories that have bedeviled it since it gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

In one of the territories, South Ossetia, it is backing a newly emerged pro-Georgia government. In the other, Abkhazia, it has established an official government in exile in a remote mountainous enclave, which it calls Upper Abkhazia.

Georgia also is funding development projects such as roads, hospitals, police stations, theaters, health clinics and nightclubs in both territories to bolster support for the new governments.

In both cases, it is attempting to challenge the authority of the de facto governments that have ruled Abkhazia and South Ossetia since the early 1990s.

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili has said he intends to retake control of the renegade territories by 2009, and the new governments appear to be a key component of his strategy.

“The way leading from Tbilisi to Sukhumi passes through Upper Abkhazia,” Mr. Saakashvili said recently in Upper Abkhazia. Sukhumi is the separatist-held capital of Abkhazia.

Although the territories are small — Abkhazia is home to about 200,000 people, South Ossetia to 50,000 — the conflicts have a superpower dimension reminiscent of the Cold War.

Russia backs the separatists in both territories, while the U.S. has given substantial support to Georgia, including help in training and reforming the military.

The United States thinks Georgia could become a model state, setting a standard for Westernized, business-friendly reforms across the Caucasus and Central Asia.

Russia, meanwhile, sees Georgia as a threat to its lucrative monopoly on natural gas exports to Europe. For the past two years, new oil and gas pipelines through Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey have allowed petroleum products from the Caspian Sea to be exported to Europe without going through Russia.

Georgia insists it wants to resolve the conflicts peacefully. Given that its top foreign policy goal is joining NATO, which has said that a precondition for joining is not using force in Abkhazia or South Ossetia, a war seems unlikely.

Instead, Tbilisi is proposing significant levels of autonomy for both territories.

In both the separatist capitals, however, the governments are making hay of the U.S.-Georgia alliance and raising the specter of a U.S.-backed attack.

“The U.S. and NATO give Georgia military support and, because of that support, Georgian authorities conducted that operation in [Upper Abkhazia] and destabilized the situation. So there’s only one way out: the military option,” said Sergey Shamba, the foreign minister in Abkhazia’s breakaway government, which is not internationally recognized.

Abkhazia was one of the Soviet Union’s top tourist destinations for its subtropical climate, palm trees and beautiful location on the Black Sea, but most buildings have been destroyed and only a few hardy Russian tourists still visit its beach resorts.

“In this new war, the U.S. will be standing behind Georgia, and Russia will be behind Abkhazia. Peace in this region is on a dangerous edge,” Mr. Shamba said.

In Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia, police and soldiers appear to outnumber civilian men on the streets. The South Ossetian flag rarely appears without a Russian flag next to it, and billboards in the city show Russian President Vladimir Putin with the caption, “Our President.”

In Russia, Foreign Minister Murat Djioev said he appreciates the U.S. stance against military force in South Ossetia. As with Abkhazia, South Ossetia’s government is not internationally recognized.

Mr. Djioev said, “Georgia is using this U.S. military assistance to aggravate the relationship with us.”

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