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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

South Ossetian Spat May 'Reheat' Region

The Foreign Ministry on Thursday rejected a Georgian demand that Russian troops obtain Georgian entry visas before being deployed to South Ossetia.

The leaders of the self-declared republic, meanwhile, reiterated their intention for the province to join Russia.

The latest exchange between Moscow and Tbilisi renewed fears -- or hopes -- that Russia would recognize South Ossetia's independence.

"We treat the principle of territorial integrity with respect," Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin said Thursday in a statement. "But as far as Georgia is concerned, its territorial integrity is still only a possibility and not a political and legal reality."

Kamynin's statement added that Georgia would resolve its territorial disputes "only after difficult talks, in which South Ossetia's position will be based, as we understand it, on another principle, which is also recognized by the world community -- the right to self-determination."

Konstantin Gabishvili, chairman of the Georgian parliament's International Affairs Committee, dismissed the Foreign Ministry's discussion of self-determination, saying "this is empty talk that will lead nowhere."

The verbal spat came one day after the Georgian government declared that Russian troops had entered Georgia illegally because they did not have visas.

The estimated 500 Russian soldiers had been sent to South Ossetia for peacekeeping operations.

"This operation is no longer peacekeeping but rather an operation of force conducted by the Russian military," Georgy Khaindrava, Georgia's conflict resolution minister, said Thursday.

The Russian Foreign Ministry noted that Georgia does not control the territory of South Ossetia.

South Ossetian leaders had said they would ask the Russian Constitutional Court to inquire whether the province could be "reintegrated" into Russia.

The separatists' leader, Eduard Kokoity, restated Thursday his plan to sue for the province to become part of Russia.

Kokoity cited the 1774 Treaty of Kuchuk Kainarji between Russia and the Ottoman Empire that made South Ossetia part of Russia. He added that no subsequent treaties had transferred the province to Georgia.

Boris Chochiyev, the separatist government's first deputy prime minister, accused Georgian authorities Tuesday of escalating tensions by deploying commandos to disrupt the rotation of Russian peacekeeping forces.

Khaindrava rejected that claim, adding that separatist forces were, in fact, mobilizing for battle by fortifying their positions on strategically valuable higher elevations.

Georgian media have speculated that Tbilisi contrived a plan, dubbed the "Leap of the Tiger," to provoke clashes in South Ossetia while blocking its border with Russia to block military support coming from the republic of North Ossetia.

Georgian Defense Minister Irakly Okruashvili earlier said he would celebrate the 2007 New Year in Tskhinval, the capital of South Ossetia.

Experts interviewed earlier this week voiced doubt that Georgia would try to win back control of South Ossetia by force. But they did say that Tbilisi might try to "reheat" the conflict to draw the European Union or NATO into mediation talks.

"Georgia would benefit from reheating the conflict if it helps attract the attention of these [Western] mediators, although the question still remains whether these powers would agree to get involved," said Alexei Malashenko, a senior analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

Nikolai Silayev of the Center for Caucasus Studies at the Moscow State University of Foreign Relations agreed that Georgia would benefit from an escalation in the conflict, but he said the country's image could suffer abroad.

Georgia received an image boost in the West after its 2003 Rose Revolution.

Both Malashenko and Silayev posited that Moscow had no interest in seeing tensions heat up between Georgia and South Ossetia. Malashenko added that the Russia was unlikely to alter its position on Georgia before a new president is elected, in 2008.