Monday, August 25, 2008

— MOSCOW - Russia’s parliament meets Monday to consider recognizing Georgia‘s two breakaway regions as independent, nearly three weeks after Russian troops rolled into the neighbouring republic.

Recognition would mean crossing a threshold for Moscow, which has backed the separatists in Abkhazia and South Ossetia since their break with Tbilisi in the early 1990s but stopped short of declaring them independent from Georgia.

Both houses of Russia’s parliament are to convene emergency sessions to examine appeals for recognition from South Ossetia — where fighting this month prompted Russia to send troops — and Abkhazia.

Abkhazia and South Ossetia are internationally recognized as part of Georgia and a move to declare them independent countries is sure to anger Tbilisi and fuel the crisis in relations between Russia and the West.

The parliament of Abkhazia formally asked Moscow for recognition last week while South Ossetia’s leader Eduard Kokoity traveled to Moscow at the weekend to present a similar request.

President Dmitry Medvedev last week signaled Moscow was ready to consider such a move, saying Russia would “make the decision which unambiguously supports the will of these two Caucasus peoples.”

“I cannot rule out that the State Duma will appeal to the country’s leadership to recognize the independence of Abkhazia,” Oleg Morozov, deputy speaker of the State Duma lower house of parliament, was quoted as saying by Interfax.

But the real decision lies with the Kremlin rather than with Russia’s compliant parliament.

If Moscow recognizes the two regions, the next steps are less clear — but one possibility is outright annexation, under a 2001 law that allows states to join Russia if both sides agree.

South Ossetia in particular has lobbied hard to join Russia so it can be united with the Russian republic of North Ossetia, home to the same Ossetian ethnic group.

Previous attempts by South Ossetia to join Russia have failed. In 2004, Russia’s constitutional court ruled that South Ossetia could not be annexed unless Georgia agreed to let go of it.

But if Moscow recognizes the two regions, it could then annex them as they will be considered independent states, said Suren Avakyan, a constitutional law expert at Moscow State University.

“Once the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia is recognized, these territories, as independent states, can ask Russia to admit them, which is perfectly allowed by the Russian constitution,” Avakyan told AFP.

Other experts doubt however that Moscow would risk pouring fuel on the fire by annexing them.

“Right after the conflict with Georgia, Russia would look very indecent if it immediately annexed South Ossetia and Abkhazia,” said Yevgeny Volk, of the US-based Heritage Foundation.

“Russia will be perfectly content if they are pseudo-independent states,” Volk added, drawing a parallel with Northern Cyprus, which is only recognised by Turkey.

As lawmakers meet in Moscow, the situation in Kosovo will be casting a long shadow.

The province unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in February and was recognized by the United States and European states despite Moscow’s fierce opposition.

“The wisest thing to do at this point, like in Kosovo, would be to recognize their self-styled governments, and maybe give them a 10-year stabilization period,” said Georgy Tikhonov, a former Duma deputy.

Russia poured troops and armour into Georgia this month to repel a Georgian attack on South Ossetia that began August 7.

Russian troops drove Georgians out of the two regions, giving the separatists full control over the territories and Moscow has since said they will not be allowed to return.

Moscow had also vehemently opposed Georgia’s attempts to enter NATO, and Tbilisi has accused Moscow of using conflicts over the two breakaway regions to foil Georgia’s chances of NATO membership.

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