Moscow Wary With CIS Separatists

Buoyed by major Western powers' moves to recognize Kosovar independence, the leaders of two separatist Georgian regions said Monday that they would press forward in their own quests for statehood.

But the endorsement Presidents Sergei Bagapsh of Abkhazia and Eduard Kokoity of South Ossetia received from State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov may have been more lukewarm than they expected.

During a meeting in Moscow on Monday, Gryzlov merely told both leaders that the recognition of Kosovo did, indeed, mean that the government should "reshape its relations with self-proclaimed republics ... in the post-Soviet sphere," according to a statement posted on the Duma's web site.

Gryzlov did not elaborate on what this might entail, but Bagapsh suggested that there should be an end to the economic isolation of the breakaway republic: "If Kosovo gains recognition, the time has come to look at a lifting of the embargo against Abkhazia," he was quoted as saying by Interfax.

Moscow has long been accused of ignoring an economic trade embargo enforced, on the official level at least, by the Commonwealth of Independent States, penalizing Abkhazia.

Abkhazia, a lush coastal strip lying on the Black Sea, and South Ossetia, a mountainous territory on the Caucasus' southern flank, have been largely isolated from the rest of the world since breaking away from Georgia after bloody conflicts in the early 1990s.

Viktor Ozerov, a member of the Federation Council, said that Moscow might take a fresh look at its economic and political ties with unrecognized republics. "Not only can we but we should," Ozerov said, the Regions.ru portal reported.

Analysts said Moscow had various means at its disposal of stepping up its already heavy influence on the breakaway republics near its borders.

"Russia could extend its sphere of legislation into Abkhazia," said Ivan Safranchuk, head of the Moscow office of the World Security Institute, a think tank.

Safranchuk added, however, that he did not expect that Moscow, or indeed any capital, would recognize the breakaway republics. "I do not think that anything will change with regard to the official status," he said.

Sergei Markov, a Duma Deputy with the Kremlin-friendly United Russia party, said Russia should use a broad range of measures both against Kosovo and in relation to the breakaway territories in its backyard.

"We cannot hinder the United States from recognizing Kosovo, but we can block its accession to international organizations," he said in a telephone interview.

"We might even stop them from sending a team to the Olympic games," he stressed.

Earlier Monday, Bagapsh and Kokoity told reporters that they would formally ask the Duma, the United Nations and CIS member states to recognize their republics. "We will send the requests before the end of February," Kokoity was quoted as saying by Interfax.

But far from offering them recognition, Gryzlov was busy lambasting the Serbian province's unilateral declaration of independence, proclaimed by the parliament in Pristina Sunday.

"Only political myopia could prevent you from seeing that Kosovar separatism will become the fuse that ignites numerous smoldering conflicts," he said, according to the Duma web site.

Kokoity seemed to be backtracking when he said that neither republic had plans to force events.

"Abkhazia and South Ossetia will move toward independence step by step, in accordance with international law," he said, Interfax reported. "We have our speed, independent of Kosovo."

In a joint statement, both houses of the Russian parliament condemned the West's decision, charging that Kosovo would not have made the move toward independence without the support of Western governments, and the United States in particular.

"This ignores the rightful interests of one side in the conflict," the statement said, referring to Serbia.

President George W. Bush on Monday hailed Kosovo's bid and the U.S. government extended formal recognition.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in a statement that Bush "has responded affirmatively" to Kosovo's request to establish diplomatic relations, the U.S. State Department said on its web site.

The establishment of these relations will reaffirm the special ties of friendship that have linked together the people of the United States and Kosovo," the statement said.

France, Britain and Germany led most European Union nations Monday in recognizing Kosovo's independence. Spain led a group of five against the move, fearing that it could set a dangerous precedent encouraging separatist minorities elsewhere to seek statehood.

The Serbian government, meanwhile, filed legal charges against Kosovo's leadership Monday, while vowing to block the nascent state's attempts to join international organizations, The Associated Press reported.

Serbia's Interior Ministry said charges of committing a "serious criminal act against the constitutional order and security of Serbia" were being filed against Kosovo President Fatmir Sejdiu, Prime Minister Hashim Thaci and Speaker Jakup Krasniqi, the news agency reported.

Lawmakers in Transdnestr, a breakaway republic from Moldova, also announced plans to step up their quest for independence.

"Kosovo is an important precedent," Yevgeny Shevchuk, the speaker of the parliament in the regional capital Tiraspol, was quoted as saying by Interfax.

Moldova, by contrast, said Monday that it would not recognize Kosovo's independence. Kosovo's declaration creates "deep concerns," the government said in a statement.