Putin Backs Abkhaz Autonomy Plan

APRussian peacekeepers running during training exercises in Georgia's separatist region of Abkhazia last month.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said he approved of a plan to give Georgia's breakaway region of Abkhazia autonomy but not full independence.

But Georgia accused Moscow of trying to annex the region after the Defense Ministry sent unarmed troops on Saturday to rebuild a railroad in Abkhazia. The ministry called the deployment "humanitarian aid."

Georgia said Friday that it had stopped spy plane flights over Abkhazia to quell Western fears that tensions between Tbilisi and Moscow could degenerate into war.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has offered Abkhazia, which broke away in a war in the 1990s, a package that would return it to Georgian control but give it autonomy, the post of vice president, free trade zones, and seats in parliament.

"I very much hope that the plan that Saakashvili proposed will gradually be introduced, because overall it is the right plan," Putin said Friday in an interview with France's Le Monde newspaper, given on a visit to Paris and attended by a group of reporters.

"It just needs the other side to agree to it. You need to conduct a dialogue," he said.

Putin's apparent support was surprising because Moscow backs the separatists. However, his condition that Abkhazia must agree to the plan is unlikely to be fulfilled. The separatists rejected it when it was first presented.

Russian state television broadcast footage on Saturday of columns of military trucks arriving in Abkhazia, where most of the population have been issued Russian passports.

"We have organized for the restoration of [Abkhazia's] roads and infrastructure and have sent unarmed railway troops to carry this out," the Defense Ministry said on its web site.

Putin said he had personally agreed with Abkhaz authorities that Russia would help restore the railroad. "I was personally occupied with this," Putin said in the Le Monde interview. "We worked out an entire plan of cooperative work: developing energy, building infrastructure. We decided to restore the railroad." He did not say when the plan was agreed upon.

Georgia said the move was illegal.

"This is one more aggressive step by Russia against the territorial integrity of Georgia. ... The annexation of Abkhazia is under way," Deputy Foreign Minister Grigol Vashadze told reporters in Tbilisi.

President Dmitry Medvedev is scheduled to meet Saakashvili early this month, their first contact since Medvedev became president, Georgian and Russian officials said late last week. The officials did not say where the meeting would take place, but Saakashvili has said he would like it occur on the sidelines of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum on June 6 to 8.

Speaking after addressing the United Nations Security Council on Friday, Georgian UN Ambassador Irakli Alasania said the spy plane flights had been stopped but might resume if Tbilisi saw a threat from Abkhazia. Russian UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said he was "quite encouraged" by the Georgian halt to overflights, although he regretted the warning of a possible resumption -- something he said Alasania had not mentioned at the council meeting.

To try to calm tensions, European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana is due to visit Tbilisi and Abkhazia this week, while U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza, Washington's point man for the area, will go to Moscow.