Tensions Heated for Abkhaz Leader Visit

Heated tensions over Abkhazia showed no sign of waning Monday as the breakaway region's leader arrived in Moscow for talks over closer ties with Russia.

Abkhaz leader Sergei Bagapsh will discuss Moscow's proposal to establish direct institutional links with Abkhazia, the foreign minister of the self-styled republic, Sergei Shamba, said by telephone from the regional capital of Sukhumi.

Bagapsh was scheduled to meet with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Tuesday afternoon, Shamba said.

Last month, then-President Vladimir Putin signed a decree on deepening relations with Georgia's two breakaway regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Putin ordered his government to establish closer trade, economic, social and scientific links with the two regions, though he stopped short of offering them diplomatic recognition.

The decree angered Tbilisi, which claims that Moscow is siding with the separatists and disregarding Georgia's territorial integrity. Abkhazia and South Ossetia have enjoyed de facto independence since two secessionist wars in the early 1990s.

Shamba denied a report that Bagapsh would seek Moscow's approval for a peace deal with Georgia. "The president is on a working visit to discuss Putin's decree," Shamba said.

Kommersant reported Monday that Georgia's ambassador to the United Nations, Irakli Alasania, had proposed a wide-ranging deal to the separatist authorities in Sukhumi last week.

The deal, the paper said, citing sources in the Abkhaz leadership, consisted of a mutual nonaggression pact mediated by Moscow, the return of Georgian refugees who fled Abkhazia in the 1990s and the withdrawal of Georgian forces from the Kodor Gorge.

Bagapsh denied the report, saying no such agreement existed between Sukhumi and Tbilisi and that he would accept no less than full independence.

"Our position is that Georgia first needs to withdraw its forces from the upper Kodor, and only after that we will be ready for a nonaggression agreement," he was quoted as saying by Interfax.

The Kodor Gorge is a sliver of land that has become a flash point between Tbilisi and Sukhumi.

Shamba described the Kommersant report as flawed. A phone call to Georgian Reintegration Minister Temur Yakobashvili, who handles relations with the breakaway regions, was disrupted by a bad connection Monday and follow-up calls were unsuccessful.

The latest flare-up in Russian-Georgian relations comes as Georgia is set to elect a new parliament this Wednesday.

Tensions over Abkhazia increased last month when a Georgian spy plane was shot down over the region. Georgia said the unmanned plane was shot down by a Russian jet violating its airspace.

Russia has since stepped up its rhetoric and sent reinforcements to its peacekeeping forces, which control Abkhazia's boundary with the rest of Georgia, saying that a Georgian invasion is imminent.

Moscow's military leadership over the weekend authorized peacekeepers to conduct armed operations on their own behalf if necessary, Nezavisimaya Gazeta reported Monday.

The Defense Ministry did not answer repeated calls Monday, but Shamba, the Abkhaz foreign minister, called the report "credible."

Georgia has reacted to Moscow's stance by blocking negotiations over Russia's accession to the World Trade Organization.

In another step likely to hamper any agreement with Georgia, Abkhazia signed a cooperation agreement Friday with the neighboring Krasnodar region over construction work for the Winter Olympics in Sochi in 2014.

Georgia has warned that such joint projects that exclude Tbilisi would call into doubt the rightfulness of the selection of Sochi as the Olympics.