Russia accuses West of provocation in Georgia

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian President Dmitry Medvedev accused the United States on Saturday of provoking Moscow by using warships to deliver relief aid to its ally Georgia, with which Russia fought a brief war last month.

“I wonder how they would feel if we now dispatched humanitarian assistance to the Caribbean, suffering from a hurricane, using our navy,” Medvedev said, adding that a whole U.S. fleet had been dispatched to deliver the aid.

Russia has also accused U.S. warships of rearming Tbilisi’s defeated army, a charge dismissed as “ridiculous” by Washington.

NATO in turn has rejected talk of a buildup of its warships in the Black Sea, saying their recent presence in the region was part of routine exercises.

Medvedev, speaking at a meeting of his advisory state council, said he had summoned the council to discuss changes in Russia’s foreign and security policy after the war.

The biggest U.S. ship to arrive so far, the USS Mount Whitney, dropped anchor on Friday off the Russian-patrolled Georgian port of Poti.

Tension between Moscow and the West eased on Saturday when the OSCE security body said Russia was allowing its observers to circulate freely throughout Georgia, but the breakaway Georgian region Abkhazia later said it was forging military cooperation with Moscow.

The OSCE report comes days before French President Nicolas Sarkozy travels to Moscow for talks with Medvedev to assess Russian compliance with a French-brokered peace plan.

“We’ve had very good access. I think we’re working at it and the Russians are, I’d argue, opening up,” said Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb in Avignon, chairman in office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

The European Union agreed on Saturday to send an “autonomous mission” to Georgia to monitor Russia’s withdrawal from occupied territory, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said, accusing Moscow of failing to respect several points in the peace plan.

Russia and Georgia fought a brief but intense war after Tbilisi sent in troops to try to seize back the rebel region of South Ossetia, provoking massive retaliation by Moscow.

The conflict has dented confidence in the Caucasus as an energy transit route — Georgia is at the heart of two crucial oil and gas pipelines which bring high-quality crude and gas from booming oil state Azerbaijan to Europe via Turkey.

Analysts have also questioned the feasibility of the ambitious Nabucco gas pipeline project, which would bring Caspian Sea gas to Europe via Georgia, reducing reliance on Russia.

Russian stocks and the rouble have been hurt as foreign investors pull money out because of increased political risk.

MILITARY COOPERATION

The West has stepped up its backing for Georgia to join NATO — a move Moscow opposes on the ground that Georgia is in its sphere of influence — since Russia recognized the Georgian breakaway rebel regions South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states.

So far only Nicaragua has followed Russia’s lead in recognizing the two provinces as independent. In a setback for Russia, its ex-Soviet security allies in the Collective Security Treaty Organization stopped short of doing so late last week.

Tbilisi and Western states have accused Russia of annexation, a claim Moscow sharply denies.

On Saturday self-styled Abkhaz president Sergei Bagapsh said he expected to reach agreement with Moscow soon on military cooperation.

“We’re insisting (on military cooperation) and we will ask the Russian Federation to leave Russian troops in Abkhazia,” Bagapsh told reporters in the Russian capital, adding that the agreement should be signed within the next few days in Moscow.

Bagapsh has asked that Russian vessels and troops remain on Abkhazia’s lush Black Sea coast and in the coastal cities of Guadata and Ochamchira.

“(The Russian military) will also probably be in front of the security zone,” he said, referring to a zone set up along the Abkhaz boundary in the early 1990s, when the province fought off Georgian rule. Russian peacekeepers have been based there since.

In late August the Kremlin said it was preparing to sign alliance agreements with both Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but declined to say when it would do so.

REGIONAL PEACE THREATENED

Turkish President Abdullah Gul paid a landmark visit to neighboring long-time foe Armenia on Saturday to attend a soccer match he said could help end a century of mutual hostility and aid security in the broader Caucasus region.

“We saw a month ago how unresolved issues in the Caucasus threaten peace in the region,” Gul told a news conference. Making this trip at such a time makes it especially important,” said Gul, the first Turkish leader to visit Armenia.

The Georgia conflict has convinced many that it is time for Ankara and Yerevan to put their differences aside.

(Reporting by Oleg Shchedrov and Aidar Buribayev in Moscow, Mark John and Francois Murphy in Avignon, Paul de Bendern in Yerevan; writing by Amie Ferris-Rotman, editing by Tim Pearce)

Sat Sep 6, 2008 11:08am EDT
By Oleg Shchedrov and Aidar Buribayev

Source: Reuters

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