Other Separatists Ask 'Why Not Us?'

APSergei Bagapsh
SUKHUMI, Georgia -- Residents of one disputed sliver of land in the former Soviet Union are asking: If Kosovo can be recognized as an independent state, why can't we?

Georgia's rebel region of Abkhazia on the Black Sea coast is one of four former Soviet regions that declared their independence in the 1990s and fought separatist wars but that have not been recognized as states.

In Sukhumi, the Abkhaz capital that in places still bears scars of the fighting against Georgian troops, officials and citizens said they hoped that Kosovo would create a legal precedent that they too could follow.

"If they recognized Kosovo, how are we any worse?" said Nodar Sheoua, a student standing in a slushy Sukhumi street.

Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia on Sunday. A number of countries have given formal recognition to Kosovo.

Western backers of Kosovo's independence say it does not set a precedent, but the former Soviet regions call this a double standard that will now be harder to defend.

Home to 200,000 people, Abkhazia has run its own affairs since driving out Georgian forces. The mountainous region, which borders Russia, has its own flag, elected government and armed forces.

Georgia refuses to relinquish its claim over either Abkhazia or South Ossetia -- a stance backed by Tbilisi's Western allies.

Tuta Akhuba, a teacher, said the next step had to come from Russia. Moscow is Abkhazia's biggest backer but has not recognized it as a state.

"All this depends on our President [Vladimir] Putin," Akhuba said. "We ourselves depend on him. ... Our hopes rest on Putin, and Russia should be the first to recognize us."

Abkhazia's separatist president, Sergei Bagapsh, said at a news conference in Moscow on Monday that his region was just as entitled to recognition as Kosovo.

"We will shortly apply to the leadership of Russia, the CIS countries, the UN and other international organizations to recognize our independence," Bagapsh said.

In Tbilisi, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili rejected the idea of Kosovo as a precedent.

Asked if Georgia would recognize Kosovo, Saakashvili said, "Right now we are all preoccupied with other things -- whether this will have consequences in terms of provocations, stirring up trouble locally, and we are hoping to avoid wars here."

Transdnestr, which seceded from Moldova, said Kosovo proved that international rules on the inviolability of borders "were receding into history."

"Kosovo's recognition produces a new system of measures that we believe should be applied to all countries," said Yevgeny Shevchuk, speaker of the separatist parliament, the Novy Region web site reported.