SUKHUMI, Abkhazia (Daily News)—Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin went to Abkhazia on Wednesday on his first visit to the Georgian region since Moscow recognized it as an independent state last year.
Putin said his country would spend at least 15 billion rubles ($470 million) next year to build Russian military bases in Abkhazia and tighten this once Georgian region’s borders.
“We’re strengthening the borders, creating a modern border, not a Maginot Line,” Bloomberg quoted Putin as saying in an interview with Abkhaz journalists. “For contact with both Georgia and Russia.”
Putin’s comments were posted on his Web site. Putin said he could not rule out another conflict in the tense Caucasus region as long as Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, Moscow’s arch foe, remained in power. “Given today’s Georgian leadership it is impossible to exclude anything,” he said.
Putin started his visit by laying a wreath at a memorial to the victims of the 1992-1993 wars between the people of Abkhazis and the Georgian government after the break-up of the Soviet Union, an Agence France-Presse reporter said.
“Thank you for your bravery and steadfastness,” Putin told the local onlookers, who in turn thanked him for Russia’s support. Russia caused an outcry from the West when it recognized pro-Moscow Abkhazia as independent after the August war with Georgia. Only distant Nicaragua has so far followed the Kremlin’s move in recognizing South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
The Russian military has deployed about 2,240 soldiers in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Anatoly Nogovitsyn, deputy chief of Russia’s General Staff, said last week. Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin said this number may increase to about 3,000 by the end of the year. Karasin said the Federal Security Service, which defends the regions’ borders under a five-year agreement signed in April, has deployed about 1,000 border guards in Abkhazia and as many as 800 in South Ossetia.
Putin’s visit came just days after Russia marked the first anniversary of the Georgia war amid rising tensions between the two countries along the de-facto Georgian border. Georgia, meanwhile, condemned the visit as a “provocation,” accusing Moscow of increasing tensions in the region.
“The Georgian ministry of foreign affairs expresses its strong protest over yet another attempt to destabilize the situation and escalate tension in the Caucasus region,” the ministry said in a statement. Calling the visit a “provocation carried out quite in the tradition of the Soviet special services,” the ministry called on the international community to force Russia to comply with a ceasefire that ended last year’s Georgia-Russia war, “including the speedy withdrawal from Georgian territory.”
The ministry said Putin’s visit “provides further evidence that Russia continues to defy the internationally recognized norms and principles of international law.”
Eka Tkeshelashvili, head of Georgia’s Security Council, said Russia’s military spending in Abkhazia is aimed at bolstering its military presence on the Black Sea.
“Abkhazia wasn’t chosen for nothing,” Tkeshelashvili told Bloomberg by telephone in the Georgian capital Tbilisi. “We always knew that the Soviet-era base at Gudauta was operational anyway. Now they’re talking again and clearly they have further plans for these bases.”
The town of Gudauta is located on the Black Sea coast a short distance from Sochi, the Russian resort that will host the 2014 Winter Olympics. Abkhaz leader Sergei Bagapsh said in December that Abkhazia plans to benefit from the Olympics construction boom in Sochi by supplying building materials such as road metal, sand and trim stone. Tkeshelashvili said Russia’s military buildup in Abkhazia and South Ossetia is negative for Russia “because it once again exposes them as the aggressor in this conflict and reveals their true plans.”
Georgia and its Western allies, including the U.S., say Russia has failed to meet its obligations under a European Union-brokered cease-fire, specifically the requirement in the Aug. 12, 2008, agreement to withdraw its troops to their pre-war positions.
Russia insists that it has implemented the cease-fire agreement. In a letter to French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who led the EU’s mediation effort last year, Russian leader Dmitry Medvedev said on Aug. 8 that Russia had “fulfilled its obligations” under the agreement “in full” by last October. Medvedev hailed the cease-fire as the “only ‘code of conduct’ in this part of the Caucasus.”
After last year’s brief war, Russian officially recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.