Lavrov Vows to Protect Russians in Georgia

TBILISI, Georgia -- Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Wednesday sternly warned Georgia that Moscow would use "all means" to protect its citizens living in Georgia's breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, while the separatist leaders denounced the Georgian parliament's call for the withdrawal of Russian peacekeepers.

Georgian lawmakers passed a resolution Tuesday calling on the government to start a process that would lead to the pullout of Russian peacekeepers from Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Both regions have run their own affairs since breaking away from central government control in wars in the early 1990s. They maintain close ties with Russia, which granted citizenship to most of their residents.

"We will protect our citizens by all means at our disposal," Lavrov said on Ekho Moskvy radio. He criticized the Georgian parliament's resolution as "an attempt to escalate tensions."

The parliament resolution angered separatist leaders and added to the tension between Georgia and Russia. Georgia accuses the Russian peacekeepers of siding with separatists, and says Moscow is using its sway in the provinces to destabilize the country.

Russian officials have indicated they will not withdraw the peacekeepers unless the two separatist provinces agree to the pullout. Abkhaz and South Ossetian authorities sharply denounced the Georgian resolution.

Abkhazia's president, Sergei Bagapsh, considers the parliament's initiative "a most destructive political decision," Bagapsh spokesman Kristian Bzhania said Wednesday.

He said a decision to demand the pullout of Russian peacekeepers would require approval from Abkhazia's leadership. A unilateral effort to force their withdrawal would require Georgia to abandon existing agreements, leading to a "total cessation" of settlement efforts, Bzhania said.

South Ossetia's president, Eduard Kokoity, also denounced the Georgian parliament's resolution as a sign of "political ignorance" and said Russian peacekeepers would remain in both South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Interfax reported.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has final say on whether to implement the resolution and press for a Russian withdrawal. He said Tuesday that the government's final decision on peacekeepers would "depend on consultations with our Russian partners and the quality of our relations."

Saakashvili is expected to meet with President Vladimir Putin in Moscow later this week.

Georgian Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili said Wednesday that Saakashvili would make new proposals for settling the conflicts in the two provinces.

"Tbilisi is ready for any compromises ... on condition of observing the main principle: Georgia's territorial integrity," Bezhuashvili told reporters.