- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 20, 2006

MOSCOW — Growing diplomatic tensions, a Russian trade embargo and a massive boost in Georgian arms spending are raising fears of conflict in the volatile Caucasus region along Russia’s southern border.

Analysts say a meeting last week between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili failed to defuse the tension and that Russia’s open support for the leaders of Georgia’s separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia is pushing the limits of Georgian patience.

The tension is expected to be discussed when Mr. Putin hosts heads of state from the Group of Eight club of wealthy nations in St. Petersburg next month. It also will be discussed in Washington July 5 when Mr. Saakashvili meets with President Bush, who has accused the Kremlin of bullying pro-Western states in the former Soviet Union.

Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent, Moscow-based defense analyst, said Russia and Georgia appear to be laying the groundwork for an armed conflict. “What we’ve been seeing is an exchange of prewar statements,” he said. “We could see military action in the coming weeks and months.”

Georgian political analyst Alexander Rondeli agreed by telephone from Tbilisi that Russia-Georgia relations “have become truly bad. … Russia is treating Georgia as a second- or third-class country through its support of separatist regions.”

Mr. Saakashvili has made reunification with Abkhazia and South Ossetia — which broke away from Tbilisi in the 1990s — a key goal of his presidency. But Moscow has supported the separatists by installing Russian peacekeeping forces in the region, giving many residents Russian passports and supplementing the regions’ budgets.

Georgia tried earlier this month to prevent a fresh rotation of 500 soldiers from entering South Ossetia, saying they were required to have entry visas. But Russia’s Foreign Ministry dismissed the demand, saying Georgia had no control over South Ossetia and stressing the region’s right to self-determination.

Buoyed by Montenegro’s recent independence from Serbia, separatist leaders have stepped up efforts to break away from Georgia. At a meeting last week in the Abkhazian capital Sukhumi, the presidents of Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Moldova’s separatist region of Trans-Dniester announced plans to establish a joint security force to defend their independence movements.

Russian officials, meanwhile, accuse Georgia of preparing to retake South Ossetia by force. Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov told reporters on June 13 that a significant increase in Georgian military spending last year caused “unquestionable concern.”

In its annual report on global arms buying, released June 12, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute said Georgian defense spending surged more than 140 percent to $146 million in 2005 — the biggest increase worldwide last year.

Adding to the tension, Georgian officials on Saturday accused a Russian citizen of plotting to kill an opposition leader in order to discredit Mr. Saakashvili’s government. Officials did not blame Russia directly, but accused “foreign secret services” of organizing an attempt on the life of opposition leader Koba Davitashvili.

They said the purported assassin had traveled to Tbilisi through Russian-controlled territory and had fled to Russia when Georgian police uncovered the plot.

Relations between the two countries began deteriorating after Mr. Saakashvili rose to power in Georgia’s Rose Revolution, promising to boost relations with the West and to push for Georgian membership in NATO and the European Union.

In a move that critics say was designed to punish Georgia for these aspirations, Russia earlier this year imposed a ban on the country’s largest imports, wine and mineral water, citing public health concerns.

Mr. Felgenhauer said Russia’s goal is to undermine Mr. Saakashvili’s popularity and eventually install a pro-Kremlin leader in Tbilisi.

“They’re hoping that if they can destabilize the country it will lead to internal strife and the collapse of the Saakashvili regime,” he said.

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