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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Tbilisi Closes Embassy, Toughens Visa Regime

Georgia severed diplomatic ties with Russia and toughened visa requirements for Russian citizens over the weekend in response to Moscow's decision to recognize the independence of its separatist provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Russia said it would close its embassy in Tbilisi and indicated that Georgians would suffer any tit-for-tat visa measures more than Russians, noting that 600,000 to 1 million Georgian immigrants live in and near Moscow alone.

President Dmitry Medvedev, meanwhile, said Russia would give military support to South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin accused U.S. military advisers of being involved in the armed conflict between Russia and Georgia in August.

The five-day conflict ended with a truce brokered by the European Union, but diplomatic tensions have flared after President Dmitry Medvedev announced last Tuesday that Russia recognized the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

"We have received instructions at the Foreign Ministry, and we will cut diplomatic relations with the Russian Federation," Georgian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigol Vashadze told reporters in Tbilisi on Friday.

The last diplomats were to leave the Georgian Embassy in Moscow on Saturday. No one picked up the phone at the embassy on Sunday.

Georgia's Foreign Ministry said in a statement Saturday that Russian citizens traveling to Georgia would have to seek visas at Georgian embassies and consulates in third countries and would need to provide a letter of invitation. Previously, Russians could buy visas at the Georgian border for $20.

Russia's Foreign Ministry described the cutting of ties as "regrettable," saying the hundreds of thousands of Georgian immigrants in and around Moscow would be deprived of diplomatic support. It did not say whether tit-for-tat visa measures would follow.

Medvedev said Sunday that agreements were being prepared with South Ossetia and Abkhazia to provide military, economic, social and humanitarian support. "We of course will help them," Medvedev said in an interview with the state television channels.

While Russia and Georgia continued to exchange barbs over the weekend, Georgian refugees uprooted by the military conflict could not return to their homes in so-called security zones set up by the Russian military in areas adjacent to South Ossetia's border, the United Nations refugee agency said Saturday.

Refugee agency spokeswoman Melita Sunjic said Russian troops in the security zones were refusing to guarantee safety to the returning local residents. "If they say, 'We can't guarantee your safety,' you don't go," she said, The Associated Press reported.

Russian officials said Saturday that all refugees who fled from South Ossetia to Russia during the conflict had returned home, Itar-Tass reported. The Federal Migration Service said 34,000 people left South Ossetia after Georgian troops attacked the separatist republic on Aug. 8.

Stepping up his criticism of the United States, Putin told Germany's ARD television on Friday that a lot of U.S. military advisers had been in the war zone during the conflict.

"And that pushes one to the conclusion that the leadership of the United States knew about the action that was being prepared and moreover probably took part in it," Putin said, expanding on comments made a day earlier to CNN.

"If the leadership of the United States had sanctioned that, then I have the suspicion that it was done specially to organize a small, victorious war," he said. "And if it didn't work, then to create from Russia the appearance of an enemy and on those grounds unite the electorate around one presidential candidate, of course, the ruling party."

Putin did not name Republican candidate John McCain.

The White House said Putin's claims were "patently false."

Meanwhile, Belarus, which has backed Moscow's decision to grant independence to South Ossetia and Abkhazia but has not recognized them itself, was joined by Venezuela on Saturday, Vesti-24 television reported.

"Russia recognized the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. We support Russia. Russia is right," Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez said in Caracas.

Venezuela is Russia's biggest arms client in the Western hemisphere, and Chavez has developed close personal ties with Putin over the past three years.

Moldova's separatist Transdnestr region, which is populated largely by ethnic Russians, recognized the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia on Sunday, as did the separatist Nagorno-Karabakh republic last week. Neither region is recognized internationally.

Moldova said Friday that it would not recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia.