MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia’s parliament unanimously approved resolutions on Monday calling for the recognition of two rebel regions of Georgia as independent states, a move likely to worsen already strained relations with the West.
Washington said Moscow was failing to abide by a ceasefire agreement in keeping a large military presence in Georgia.
Both houses of Russia’s parliament, controlled by Kremlin loyalists, swiftly endorsed non-binding resolutions urging President Dmitry Medvedev to recognize the pro-Moscow breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Georgia and Russia fought a brief war over South Ossetia earlier this month after Tbilisi sent in troops to try to retake the province by force, provoking a massive counter-attack by land, sea and air by Moscow.
Recognizing the rebel regions would anger Georgia’s Western allies, which say its territorial integrity must be respected. Parliament’s resolutions could signal Medvedev himself intends to grant recognition, or simply be a Kremlin bargaining chip.
Medvedev did not immediately comment on the votes in parliament.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose government is the past few days has grown increasingly critical of Russia’s military intervention in Georgia, said Medvedev’s recognition would add tension to an already critical situation.
“I expect that the Russian president won’t sign the resolution,” she told a news conference in Stockholm, where she was having talks with Swedish officials.
Officials in the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, followed the Russian parliamentary debates on live television in a building pockmarked with shrapnel and bullets.
After the votes jubilant residents drove down Tskhinvali’s Stalin Street waving the Russian and South Ossetian flags, thrusting their arms into the air and shouting “Victory, Victory”.
“Today it is clear that after Georgia’s aggression against South Ossetia … relations cannot be returned to their former state,” upper house speaker Sergei Mironov said during the debate. “The peoples of South Ossetia and Abkhazia have the right to get independence.”
Moscow has so far always stopped short of recognizing the two rebel regions as independent, though Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov signaled a tougher line recently when he said the world could “forget about” Georgia’s territorial integrity.
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili accused Moscow of trying to recreate the Soviet Union, when Georgia was a vassal of the Kremlin.
“The Russian government is trying to turn back time,” he told a Cabinet meeting. The White House announced on Monday that Vice President Dick Cheney, who in the past has accused Moscow of blackmailing its neighbors, will visit Georgia as part of a trip to Europe early next month.
NATO has signaled its displeasure at Moscow’s actions by freezing contacts with Russia and U.S. officials have said Russia’s bid for membership of the World Trade Organisation could suffer.
But the international response has been limited. Europe depends on Russia for its gas supplies, while Western states also need Moscow’s cooperation in the nuclear standoff with Iran and the security operation in Afghanistan.
France, the current European Union president which brokered a ceasefire, called a September 1 meeting of EU leaders to discuss the crisis and review the bloc’s relations with Russia.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner was cautious about the likely EU reaction. “We’re not talking about sanctions,” he told France Inter radio. “We have to take stock of the situation.”
Medvedev made clear Russia was not scared by the prospect of tougher sanctions from NATO.
“We would like these relations to be comprehensive and in the spirit of partnership,” he told Russia’s ambassador to the alliance at his summer residence in Sochi, a Black Sea resort a short drive from Abkhazia.
“(But) if they, in effect, tear up that cooperation, then nothing terrible will happen to us.
There was a reminder of the fragility of the ceasefire when Georgian and South Ossetian forces faced off in a village over which both sides claim control. Each accused the other of preparing armed action, though there was no fighting.
Moscow has withdrawn most of its forces from central and western Georgia and says those still in place are peacekeepers needed to avert more bloodshed and protect South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
But Georgia and the West object to the scale of the Russian-imposed buffer zone adjoining the two rebel regions, which hands Moscow pressure points on key oil and trade routes through Georgia to the Black Sea.
“There continues to be a large presence of Russian forces in Georgia,” U.S. Defense Department spokesman Bryan Whitman told reporters in Washington. “It’s fair to say that they are still not living up to the terms of the ceasefire agreement.”
Western governments have been alarmed in particular by the presence of Russian troops around Poti, Georgia’s busiest Black Sea port. In Moscow, a senior military official said Russian forces would carry out regular inspections of cargo at the port.