Abkhazia Looks to Be Part Of Russia

The government of the breakaway Georgian province of Abkhazia is preparing to apply to become a part of the Russian Federation, its representatives said Thursday.

The proposal is unlikely to provoke much enthusiasm in Moscow, which has already played down other recent courting attempts by Abkhazia.

Abkhaz Vice President Valery Arshba said Thursday his government is preparing a set of documents that would set the ground for future integration with Russia.

"Historically, integration with Russia is a priority of Abkhaz foreign policy," he was quoted by Interfax as saying.

Abkhazia, located on the Black Sea coast, fought a bloody war for independence with Georgia in 1992 and 1993. Russia helped the freedom fighters at the time both militarily and politically, and the fighting ended with the withdrawal of Georgia's troops from the region.

Some 300,000 Georgian refugees were expelled during the fighting, the vast majority of whom have not managed to return.

Abkhazia has for two weeks been battling a group of several hundred Chechen and Georgian rebels that entered the Kodor Gorge. Abkhazia accused Georgia of allowing the fighters cross into its territory. Georgia, in return, accused Abkhazia and Moscow of violating its territorial integrity and called for Russian peacekeepers in the region to withdraw.

If Russian peacekeepers pull out, Abkhazia will ask to become a part of Russia, Igor Akhba, the region's representative in Moscow, said in a telephone interview Thursday.

Russia would probably pour cold water on such a proposal. President Vladimir Putin, reacting to Georgian allegations that Russian planes bombed villages in the Kodor Gorge, said last week that Russia respects the territorial integrity of Georgia.

"This position is solid and won't change," he was quoted by Itar-Tass as saying.

Russia does have a law allowing it to incorporate a foreign country or a part of foreign country, said Anatoly Chekhoyev, a State Duma deputy and member of the Duma committee on the Commonwealth of the Independent States.

"However, even if Abkhazia wanted to become a part of Russia, the law would require Moscow and Tbilisi to resolve the issue," he said.

Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze has repeatedly said that Tbilisi will not allow Abkhazia to become independent.