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On Crimea anniversary, Russia signs South Ossetia deal

Vladimir Putin has signed a treaty with a Georgian breakaway region. Critics say the move paves the way for Russia to annex South Ossetia.

Russia tightened control over South Ossetia on Wednesday, when President Vladimir Putin (right in photo) and his self-declared counterpart, Leonid Tibilov (left), signed the 25-year "Treaty on Alliance and Integration." The tiny mountainous region's 50,000 inhabitants broke away from Georgia in the 1990s, and Russia effectively gained full control over it and a second secessionist territory, Abkhazia, after a brief war between the government and separatists in 2008, stationing troops there to preserve the peace.

"This step made against the territorial integrity of a sovereign state further worsens the situation created as a result of the occupation and brings it to the level of an annexation," Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili said in a statement Wednesday.

South Ossetia will receive 9 billion roubles (140 million euros/$147 million) in aid over three years. Russia had already given the region 43 billion roubles over the past six years.

The treaty hands border control to Russia, which would also formally take charge of South Ossetia's economy and military. Residents of the region would also have easier access to Russian citizenship.

"A joint defense and security zone will be created between our two countries, our customs agencies will be integrated, and border crossings for our citizens will become open," Putin said on Wednesday.

'Violates Georgia's sovereignty'

Tibilov, the South Ossetian leader, said Russia could guarantee security. He noted that Wednesday also marked the first anniversary of Crimea's official annexation to Russia.

The United States and European Union, however, have condemned Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Black Sea peninsula as illegal and warned that this must not repeat itself in the Georgian regions. On Wednesday, the European Union's diplomacy chief said that the agreement undermined efforts to strengthen security and stability in the region.

"This 'treaty' - which includes references to a transfer of powers in some areas - clearly violates Georgia's sovereignty and territorial integrity," EU Foreign Policy coordinator Federica Mogherini said.

Russia signed a treaty with Abkhazia in November. Both regions had already depended on subsidies from Russia, which had kept thousands of troops there as it was. Only a handful of other countries, all of them allied with Russia, have recognized the regions' independence.

Ukraine, the United States and EU have frequently accused Russia of supplying separatists in that country's civil war.

mkg/jil (Reuters, AFP, dpa, AP)

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