Duma Backs Georgia's 2 Separatist Republics

The State Duma has urged the Kremlin to consider recognizing the independence of Georgia's separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, stepping up the government campaign to keep Georgia out of NATO.

The Duma, which overwhelmingly adopted the nonbinding declaration Friday, is dominated by United Russia. The measure would not have passed had the Kremlin opposed it.

Georgia's state minister for reintegration, Temuri Yakobashvili, dismissed the Duma declaration as "a propaganda step," Itar-Tass reported.

The Duma said the government must protect the residents of Abhkazia and South Ossetia -- most of whom have Russian citizenship -- against Georgia's push for NATO membership. It suggested that Western recognition of Kosovo's Feb. 19 declaration of independence from Serbia gave Moscow more flexibility in its approach to the breakaway regions, which it said have "far greater grounds to seek international recognition than Kosovo does."

Moscow strongly opposed Kosovo's independence, warning that Western recognition of Kosovo would boost the legitimacy of separatist movements worldwide.

But Putin has said Moscow would not imitate Western support for Kosovo by rushing to recognize the Georgian regions as independent -- an action that would badly damage Moscow's relations with the West, ruin its claim to moral high ground in the dispute over Kosovo, and potentially foment a war with Georgia.

Reflecting such circumspection, the Duma rejected one lawmaker's proposal for a stronger statement that included an outright call for such recognition.

Instead, it asked Putin and the government to "consider the question of the expediency of recognizing the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia."

It also called for "speeding up the process of sovereignty" for the regions if Georgia's drive to join NATO accelerated, suggesting that the government should recognize their independence if the alliance puts Georgia on membership track at the April summit.

The vote was 440-0 in the 450-seat Duma; two lawmakers abstained.

Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the Russia in Global Affairs journal, called the declaration "compensation for the fact that Russia is not recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia" He said the Kremlin would only consider doing so if Georgia appeared headed for NATO membership. The declaration was "part of the effort to prevent Georgia from joining NATO," he said.

Meanwhile, a vehicle carrying a Russian peacekeeper in South Ossetia was hit by an explosion Sunday, badly injuring two men, a spokeswoman for the South Ossetian government said.

The explosion occurred in the morning near the village of Okona on the region's border with Georgia, said Irina Gagloyeva.

The peacekeeper and a local citizen were being treated for their injuries at a hospital in the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, she said.