MOSCOW WILL RESPOND TO NATO WITH ABKHAZIA

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Russia may establish direct official relations with unrecognized republics

NATO has demanded an explanation from Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who said that Russia will “make every effort to prevent Ukraine and Georgia from joining NATO.” A NATO spokesman emphasized that the Russian government did not specify what kind of measures this may entail.


NATO has demanded an explanation from Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who said on April 8 that Russia will “make every effort to prevent Ukraine and Georgia from joining NATO.” NATO spokesman James Appathurai emphasized that the Russian government did not specify what kind of measures this may entail.

Meanwhile, according to sources in the presidential administration, President Vladimir Putin is soon to sign a decree with the following title: “On the main directions for developing the Russian Federation’s relations with Abkhazia and South Ossetia.” Informed sources claim that this decree should give the green light for Russian ministries and agencies to establish direct official relations with their counterparts in the unrecognized republics. Russian regions will also be allowed to open representative offices in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. However, according to our sources, there is no talk of opening Russian consulates there. A source said: “This will probably involve opening some sort of general representative office – ‘for protecting the interests of Russian citizens,’ for example – in these republics.” This office would then host representatives of particular ministries (such as the Economic Development Ministry), the Federal Customs Service, the Pension Fund, and other bodies.

There will also be diplomats there – active diplomats. This is the principal difference between the arrangement which the Russian leadership intends for Abkhazia and what is known as the Taiwan scenario, which a number of experts have mentioned. The United States hasn’t officially recognized Taiwan; it maintains relations with Taiwan via the American Taiwan Institute, a private non-profit corporation. Essentially, this is an unofficial American diplomatic presence. It is staffed with professional American diplomats who take leave of absence for the duration of their stints in Taiwan. But the Russian diplomats who will be working in Abkhazia have no intention of taking a leave of absence. Formally, according to the Foreign Ministry’s documents, they will be counted as staff at the Russian Embassy in Georgia; but they will not be accredited in Tbilisi and will not apply for Georgian visas.

Our sources are hoping that the presidential decree will be signed before the new president’s inauguration – because the bureaucracy’s inevitable changing of the guard for an incoming head of state might result in having to re-start the whole laborious process of coordinating everything.

“This might not be the best moment for making radical decisions,” says Konstantin Zatulin, senior deputy chairman of the Duma’s committee for CIS affairs and contacts with compatriots abroad. “Officials and bureaucrats are trying to guess what the new president will or won’t like. So they’re being very cautious. I think the decision on formal recognition should be delayed until December. Let’s not start off Medvedev’s presidency with any steps that would seriously complicate his relations with the West. Recognizing Abkhazia entails an element of risk – yet it would be best to take the risk now, since these decisions would be more costly later. The Kosovo issue won’t remain current forever. Right now, any steps we take in relation to the unrecognized republics would get an understanding response from the rest of the world, as a reaction to the recognition of Kosovo by the United States. If we don’t solve the problem now, it will arise again closer to the 2014 Winter Olympics. An example of this is right in front of us: China and Tibet.”

Another source – a Russian diplomat who has worked in Georgia for a long time – says that this is precisely the right time to make such decisions. “The Republican administration in the United States is winding down. Bush doesn’t want to get involved in all this right now, since he needs to at least create the illusion that Russian-American relations are being ‘handed over’ in good condition,” says the diplomat. “The presidential candidates won’t say much about this either, since American voters don’t really care about foreign affairs at present. Once the new president of the United States is elected, he’ll need a few more months to settle in. By then, it will be too late for any arm-waving. The Americans will express their displeasure, of course – quite strongly, perhaps. But I don’t think they would take any practical steps. I don’t see Georgia being able to do anything about it either. And in broader terms, we don’t give a damn what the Georgians do. It isn’t all that important for us to maintain good relations with Georgia.”

Although the presidential decree makes no mention of any further action that Russia may take, this could include signing military treaties with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, similar to the treaties the USA had with Taiwan. This would be followed by deploying army units at the Russian military base in Gudauta (currently closed, but all the infrastructure is still there, including an excellent airfield). Reopening the naval base at Ochamchira: stationing submarines there would make it impossible for NATO ships to cruise along Abkhazia’s coast. As for formally recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia, our sources say that the Foreign Ministry has advised the president to do so in either of two cases: if Georgia really starts the process of joining NATO, or in the event of military aggression against the two unrecognized republics.

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