Russia warned Georgia against joining NATO, saying membership would only lead to more bloodshed in separatist Abkhazia. The Moscow-Tbilisi conflict could be resolved without international help, said Russia's president.
Both Georgia and Russia lay claim to the Abkhazia region
Speaking at an informal summit of former Soviet states near Saint Petersburg on Friday, June 6, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that a resolution to the conflict in the breakaway Georgian region would not be achieved if Georgia joins NATO.
"This would lead to another spiral of confrontation in the area," said Lavrov.
The foreign minister also said that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev had at the summit pressed his Georgian counterpart Mikheil Saakashvili to commit to not using force against Moscow-backed separatists in Abkhazia.
Abkhazia broke from George in a conflict in the early 1990s and is now backed by Moscow, which has traditionally viewed Georgia as part of its sphere of influence. Russia sees Georgia's bid for NATO membership as an encroachment of its power in the region.
Georgia has negotiated with NATO the possibility of joining the alliance, although a timeframe has not been laid down.
Medvedev rejects outside help
Russia is staunchly opposed to Georgia joining NATO
Tensions have risen in recent weeks after Georgia accused a Russian fighter jet of shooting down one of its spy planes on April 20. Tbilisi has since tried to lobby international support, which has only further angered Russia.
Speaking ahead of Friday's summit, which was seen as an early test of his foreign relations credentials, Medvedev insisted that international mediation was not necessary in resolving the conflict.
"I think that we, on our own, are the most capable of resolving the questions, overcoming the difficulties that exist and building our relationship for the long run," said the Russian president, who took office on May 7.
The comments coincided with a meeting Friday between European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana and rebel leaders in Abkhazia. Solana has said that the EU wants to become more deeply involved in the mediating the conflict.
Tbilisi seeks withdrawal of Russian troops
"I think we can sort out our relations by ourselves," said Medvedev. Turning to Saakashvili, he asked: "What do you think?"
Responding with agreement, the Georgian president said, "There are no problems that cannot be solved when there is mutual understanding." He added that Russia and Georgia are countries with a close historical and cultural connection.
Russia recently beefed up its peacekeeping force in Abkhazia
Saakashvili has said in the past that he hopes the new Russian presidency will provide a window for better relations after a difficult relationship with Medvedev's predecessor and mentor, Vladimir Putin.
On the other hand, Saakashvili has said he would ask Medvedev to revoke an order signed by Putin in April regarding closer ties with Abkhazia and that he would seek the withdrawal of Russian troops from the region.
Following a UN report corroborating Tbilisi's claims that Moscow was behind the shooting down of its spy plane, the United States has backed Georgia in demanding the departure of Russian troops deployed to Abkhazia.
Moscow, meanwhile, has stepped up diplomatic ties with the breakaway region and sent additional troops to the region last Saturday, a move condemned by both NATO and the US.
Over 2,500 Russian peacekeepers have patrolled the autonomous region since a 1994 UN ceasefire agreement that ended civil war, and most Abkhaz residents have been issued Russian passports in recent years.