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Europe, Russia Headed for Confrontation Over Abkhazia

Russia and Europe could be headed for a showdown over independence claims of a breakaway region in Georgia. Russia might be preparing to recognize Abkhazia sovereignty. The European Union opposes the move.

Waving the flags, from left, of Russia and the two Georgian breakaway provinces, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, local residents ride a car

The EU says Abkhazia doesn't deserve independence

Kosovo's declaration of independence from Serbia last month gave hope to rebels who have been fighting to do the same in the region of Abkhazia, which borders the Black Sea.

Since Abkhazia declared independence from Georgia on Friday, March 7, Russia made signs that it is preparing to recognize the region's sovereignty by lifting a formal trade embargo.

"There is a growing preoccupation and anxiety that Russia may be paving the way for recognition of Abkhazia," EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said Monday, March 10.

She reaffirmed EU support for Georgia's borders. Abkhazia's declaration followed a similar vote on Wednesday by Georgia's other separatist region, South Ossetia. Both regions cited Kosovo as a precedent, calling on the international community to recognize their self-declared independence.

Georgian people at a rally in front of Georgian flags

Georgia wants EU support

Georgia's pro-Western government has accused Moscow of trying to destabilize the region.

"Georgia's territorial integrity has always been clearly supported by the EU ... this is absolutely clear," Ferrero-Waldner said.

The issue was on the agenda of an EU foreign ministers meeting held in Brussels Monday.

"We will be discussing Georgia and ...what can we do in order to support more strongly Georgia in a difficult situation," Ferrero-Waldner said.

Sweden and Poland had written to the EU to call for the bloc to do more to stabilize Georgia ahead of planned parliamentary elections in May. Ferrero-Waldner suggested the EU could make it easier to get visas and launch a trade pact.

Further destabilization likely

Woman sits above a valley in Abkhazia

At the moment, no country officially recognizes Abkhazia as an independent state

Moscow has had an official ban on trade with Abkhazia since 1996, although Georgia has accused Russia of providing financial aid to rebels. The region uses the Russia ruble as its currency.

No country, including Russia, currently recognizes the rebel provinces' independence claims and Georgia has sworn to regain control of the areas.

Abkhazia and South Ossetia broke away from Georgia in the early 1990s. Thousands of people were killed in the conflicts and hundreds of thousands of ethnic-Georgians were forced to abandon their homes.

Georgian politicians have said that lifting Russia's sanctions will allow Moscow to freely send weapons, military equipment and Russian mercenaries, further destabilizing the region.

The Georgian foreign ministry said Russia's move was "an extremely dangerous provocation that encourages separatism and aims to deepen tensions in the conflict zone."

The statement accused Moscow of "trying to violate Georgia's sovereignty."

Blame Kosovo

Georgian soldiers wave while riding in a truck in the high-mountain Kodori Gorge

The Georgian military has tried to retake control

Abkhazia renewed its diplomatic effort for international recognition in the weeks after Kosovo's independence.

"Georgia is a point of concern for us, because the Russian Federation and the Confederation of Independent States decided to draw certain parallels with Kosovo on this issue," Slovenian

Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel told reporters after a meeting of EU foreign ministers.

Russia vehemently opposed Kosovo's independence from Serbia. Moscow had long argued that the West's support of Kosovo independence would set a precedent for other regions of the world. The EU always argued that Kosovo was a special case.

Sergei Bagapsh, rebel leader of Abkhazia, didn't agree with the European view. He told Interfax news agency that his province has as much right to independence as Kosovo.

"We call on the international community to refuse double standards and recognize the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia," Bagapsh said. "For us the situation with the recognition of Kosovo is a precedent and all talk of the uniqueness of that case is not credible."

In a statement Friday, the Abkhaz parliament asked the United Nations and individual countries to "consider the recognition of the republic of Abkhazia as an independent, sovereign state." A separate statement asked Russia's government to do the same.

Russia's Duma will consider Abkhazia's independence at a hearing on March 13, the deputy chairman of its international affairs committee, Leonid Slutsky, told Russia's ITAR-TASS news agency.

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