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Europe

Abkhazia Solution Remains Distant for Europe, Russia

The aftershocks of Kosovo's split from Serbia are being felt in Georgia, where breakaway republics are loudly proclaiming their own independence. The situation threatens to further destabilize the region.

Georgian soldiers wave while riding in a truck

Georgia's military doesn't have control over Abkhazia

During Soviet times, Abkhazia's Black Sea coast was a prime vacation destination for the Soviet elite. While some brave Russian tourists still travel over the border, the breakaway Georgian republic remains a no-go zone for the majority of the world.

And despite Abkhazia's recent calls for the world to recognize it's independence, the region seems fated to remain locked in political limbo as Europe and Russia's attempt to exert their influence over the Caucasus.

The standoff between Abkhazia and Georgia has turned into a major headache for Europe and Russia. There's worries that violence could erupt in Abkhazia or the small Georgian breakaway republic of South Ossetia which in turn could destabilize the entire region, much as Kosovo has in the Balkans.

NATO membership remains contentious

A man casts his ballot in a Georgian-controlled villiage near South Ossetia's capital

Georgia does not see the breakaway governments as legitimate

Georgia desperately wants to join NATO and had hoped to be offered a so-called Membership Action Plan (MAP) at an important NATO summit which will be held in early April in Bucharest. The MAP is the last hurdle Georgia would need to overcome before gaining full membership to the Western military alliance.

But with Russian opposition strong and some European countries such as Germany and France backing off their support, a fast track for Georgia and Ukraine looks unlikely, experts say. The European Union has said it supports Georgia in the dispute with secessionists.

To a certain extent both Russia and Europe are using the conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia as bargaining chips, said Uwe Halbach an expert in the Caucasus and Russia for the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP).

Russia recently withdrew from a 1996 agreement banning military, economic and official contacts with Abkhazia and South Ossetia a move which Georgia complained will further destabilize the region. Yet Halbach said he expects Russia to stop short of fully recognizing the separatist regimes.

Europe, worried about angering Russia, also seemed likely to use Georgia's internal border conflicts as an excuse for stalling its NATO membership, Halbach said. Germany is one of the biggest Georgia skeptics as it is particularly sensitive to Russian criticism.

Kosovo triggered independence claims

People wave flags from a car of, from left, of Russia and the two Georgian breakaway provinces, Abkhazia and South Ossetia

They don't want to be part of Georgia

None of this political posturing between Russia, Europe and Georgia has stopped Abkhazia from calling on the international community to recognize its sovereignty. It has done so numerous times since the ethnic Abkhaz minority drove out the Georgian army in 1992. The conflict, in which Russia aided the rebels, resulted in some 250,000 ethnic Georgians being forcibly expelled from the region.

Abkhazia is often referred to as a "frozen conflict," which means it's in a standoff with no visible solution in sight. Abkhazia's independence is recognized by no one, not even its long-time ally Russia. The region has its own government, educational system and all the other bells and whistles that normally come with statehood.

Abkhazia's calls for recognition have grown louder since Kosovo's declaration of independence in February. Many European countries and the United States supported Kosovo independence, while claiming that it did not set a precedent.

Man watches a helicopter

Russia is accused of providing the rebels with weapons

Russia had strongly opposed Kosovo breaking away from its ally, Serbia. Russia officially opposes separatist movements, whether in Tibet, Kosovo or Chechnya. Alexei Ostrovsky, head of the parliamentary committee for ex-Soviet affairs, said last week that it is time for Russia to review this foreign policy in light of Kosovo.

Abkhazia, South Ossetia and the Moldovan rebel territory of Transdnestr "have more arguments in favor of being recognized than Kosovo had. They have lived independently for more than 15 years," Ostrovsky said.

Push and shove continues

While Kosovo has sharpened the arguments on both sides, Magdalena Frichova, the Tbilisi-based Caucasus Project Director for the International Crisis Group, said that doesn't expect Kosovo's independence to cause a sudden surge of violence in Georgia.

Mikhail Saakashvili

Georgia's president has promised to regain control of the territories

But she points out that the conflicts are not as "frozen" as many would like to believe. While both the Georgian government and the separatist areas emphasize they want to solve the conflicts peacefully, small incidents in the zones of conflict frequently surface and threaten to combust.

"Of serious concern is that a single incident could go slightly wrong. It could then spiral out of control and lead to something much bigger," Frichova said.

The latest minor incident came Tuesday when authorities in Abkhazia claimed they shot down an unmanned Georgian spy plane over the Black Sea. Georgia denied that it had sent a spy plane to the area.

"We have warned the Georgian side many times and demanded they put an end to the reconnaissance flights" over Abkhazia, Sergei Bagpsh, the leader of the breakaway region said.

While Georgia won't rule out the need to use force, Halbach said he doesn't think Russia or Georgia want the conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia to become violent.

Georgia remains a young democracy

A shirtless man hit by tear gas stands amidst a confrontation between security forces and anti-government protesters outside the parliament in Tbilisi, Georgia

Anti-government protestors took to the streets after the last elections

Yet concerns Georgia's readiness to join NATO go beyond its problems in Abkhazia. Pro-Western Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, who ushered in the so-called Rose Revolution in 2003, has faced massive protests who claim his January 2008 re-election election was rigged.

This recent demonstrations and hunger strikes have worried some European countries. There's a sense among some European leaders that Georgia needs to improve its democratic track record before it is ready to join NATO. The International Crisis Group has issued reports emphasizing Georgia's need to continue improving its democratic governance record, especially in terms of rule of law, property rights, judicial system and human rights.

The government in Tbilisi needs to "ensure increased accountability and transparency in the implementation of reforms, and further pursue open and democratic governance and especially engage in a constructive dialogue with opposition parties," Frichova said.

"The international community should not turn a blind eye to the corners the Georgian authorities may have cut and should be rigorous in reviewing Georgia's commitments," she said.

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