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Europe

Berlin, EU Reject Russian Calls for Georgian Regions' Statehood

Russia's upper house of parliament on Monday voted unanimously for a resolution calling on President Medvedev to recognize Georgia's rebel regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, angering the international community.

Self-proclaimed South Ossetian President Eduard Kokoity and Abkhaz President Sergej Bagapsh clap in Moscow's parliament with a TV showing the chamber in the background

South Ossetia's Eduard Kokoity (left) and Abkhazia's Sergej Bagapsh were pleased

Germany rejected the move by Russian lawmakers Monday to recognize the independence of two breakaway Georgian regions and said Moscow should ignore the vote.

"The sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia must not be questioned," deputy government spokesman Thomas Steg told reporters. "The decision of the Federation Council contradicts this principle."

Steg said that although the vote was not binding, Berlin was "concerned" by the move.

"It is a decision that does nothing to help pacify or defuse the situation (in the Caucasus) and that is why we expect neither the government nor the Russian president to go along with it," he said.

Meanwhile, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini urged Moscow to be "particularly prudent" while deciding its next move.

Frattini spoke with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov Monday, stressing the "need for both sides to respect the peace plan agreed between French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev," the statement said.

Earlier on Monday, both Russian houses of parliament voted in support of recognizing the independence of the two regions, approved resolutions appealing to President Dmitry Medvedev to formally recognise the two territories.

After an emergency meeting of the house, lawmakers issued a statement to President Dmitry Medvedev urging Moscow to proclaim South Ossetia and Abkhazia independent.

The final say

For the time being, neither Russia nor any other member of the UN recognizes the two breakaway provinces that are ethnically separate from Georgia.

Monday's vote is not legally binding and it will be up to the president to make the final call.

The vote was prompted by the recent war between Russia and Georgia, following Georgia's assault on the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali in early August.

In response, Russia mounted the biggest military deployment outside its borders since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

Moscow has backed the separatists in Abkhazia and South Ossetia since their break with Tbilisi in the early 1990s but had stopped short of declaring them independent from Georgia.

The regions are internationally recognized as part of Georgia, and a move to declare them independent would further dent relations with the West, which plunged to their lowest point since the end of the Cold War over Russia's intervention and insistence on maintaining positions deep inside Georgia.

Strained relations

A Georgian man looks at Russian troops leaving the Georgian army base of Senaki, western Georgia

Russia has only partially withdrawn its forces from Georgia

If the Kremlin agrees to recognize independence, the move is expected to further damage Moscow's relations with the West. It would represent a break with the international community on the status of the rebel regions, and potentially redraw the map of the strategic Caucasus Mountains, located between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea.

According to AFP, observers see Georgia's pro-Western path and determination to join NATO as key issues in the conflict, with Russia angered by the prospect of another neighboring country being part of the Western military alliance.

Others view Moscow's move towards recognizing South Ossetia and Abkhazia as payback for the West's recognition of Kosovo earlier this year despite vehement Russian objections.

Russia mulls scaling down of WTO plans

In addition, Russia said Monday it would scale down WTO accession talks and pull out from trade agreements concluded with a mind toward membership, the news agency Interfax quoted Premier Vladimir Putin as agreeing with top ministers.

"We should pursue negotiations and working groups on Russia's WTO accession, but we will inform our partners of the need to exit some agreements which currently oppose the interests of the Russian Federation," first deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov was quoted by the agency as saying.

Putin approved the plan as "sensible."

Vladimir Putin listens during a meeting with Russian business executives at Moscow's Kremlin

Putin has changed his view over the benefits of the WTO

"Our economy, especially in some sectors, is carrying the burden, without seeming to receiving any returns from WTO membership - if they exist at all. So far, we don't feel or see any advantages, but carry the burden," Putin added.

Russia has been bargaining for WTO membership since 1995, and as the world's 10th largest economy has become increasingly frustrated by the conditions fielded for entry to the organization.

But Monday's comments come against the background of the widening gulf with the West over the conflict in Georgia.

The United States has issued renewed threats to drop Russia's WTO bid in retaliation for Moscow's near two-week occupation of Georgia.

Georgia, a firm ally of the United States, is a WTO member and will also have its say on Russia's bid.

While Moscow has long been lobbying hard for membership, Shuvalov said Monday that Russia had no ambition to join before the end of next year.

In June, EU trade commissioner Peter Mandelson was in Moscow for WTO accession talks and held out hope that Russia would gain entry by November 2009.

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