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As the war of words escalates in the Caucasus between Moscow and Tbilisi, Russian-US geopolitical tensions sharpen

CSMS Magazine Staff WritersIf there is a hot war looming in the Caucasus Mountains, this time, it will not be fought over Chechnya. It will be over Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two breakaway regions of Georgia. The events that have been taking placed lately, especially the past three weeks, are all pointed to that conclusion. The US ambitions to expand its geopolitical goals right up to the doorstep of Russia and the aggressive position of Moscow to block such an adventure into a region historically considered as Russian spheres of influence render the prospect of a militarized Caucasus or even war all the more real. Adding to that is the growing confidence of the Russian elite, now that their country’s economy has greatly strengthened due in large part to the high-energy prices.Abkhazia, a region on the shores of the Black Sea bordering Russia, broke away from Georgia in 1994 after a bitterly contested civil war that the then government of Edward Shevardnadze felt powerless, unable to bring the rebellious region back into its fold. The whole world watched as the rebel army backed by the Russian Air Force effectively seized control of the province, declaring itself independent—an independence only recognized by Russia that granted all of its citizens Russian passports—as Shevardnadze, who himself was directing the operation along the frontlines, fled to safety under the full protection of foreign journalists.South Ossetia soon followed suit, profiting from the chaotic violence that plagued the region in the aftermath of the dissolution of the USSR to rift itself from Tbilisi. The Caucasus region was the scene of ferocious wars, civil and international, involving several countries—from Central Asia to the Black Sea. Lawlessness reigned, and the Pankisi valley, which lies along the border of several of these newly created countries, became a strategic staging area for mercenaries and revolutionaries alike.Following the loss of these two important regions, Georgia was forced to sign a peace agreement with Russia, including an agreement that allowed Russia to maintain its military bases there. The status of the breakaway provinces is still under discussion with the OSCE (the Organization for Security and Cooperation of Europe) leading the chart. However, it is the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States), a loose federation made up of most of the former Soviet republics that was given the authority to regulate the status of Abkhazia in resolutions adopted in August of 1994. According to these resolutions, Russia is the main guarantor of stability in the breakaway republic and maintains its “peacekeeping” contingent there, deployed in 12-kilometer security zones on both banks of the Inguri River, which borders the Abkhazia and Georgia proper.“A further development of these 1994 resolutions was the collective agreement reached at a summit of the CIS in 1996, which introduced a ban on trade and other relations with the unrecognized republic. However, by 1999, Russia relaxed a number of the sanctions, and in the spring of this year virtually cancelled them entirely,” wrote Vladimir Volkov in a lengthy article published on the WS website. But Russia’s change in attitude, Volkov wrote, “was a response to the West’s recognition of Kosovo’s independence, which was declared in February of this year, and also to plans to offer Georgia and Ukraine membership in NATO.”Few days before the Kosovo’s declaration of independence, the Russia Ministry of foreign affairs, acknowledging the country’s failure to prevent the western supported move despite major Russian troop movements in the Balkan, issued numerous warnings, which suggested that a Kosovo independence will constitute a precedent for similar measures with regard to unrecognized regions on the territory of the former USSR, in particular, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.But in trying to avert a further escalation of the geopolitical tensions in the region, Moscow simply refrained from recognizing the Georgian breakaway regions as independent states. However, last April, the Kremlin made a decision to restart full economic cooperation with both Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This latest decision has triggered a new wave of reactions and threats to go to war from Tbilisi.Tensions escalated in late June and continue throughout the beginning of July with a series of explosions that rocked several cities of Abkhazia, leaving 4 people dead and scores wounded. According to the article on the WS website, on June 29, in Gagra, two explosions occurred minutes apart – six people were wounded. On June 30, six more people were wounded in an explosion at a market in Sukhumi and on the morning of July 6, four bombs went off near the village of Rukhi in the zone of the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict. In the evening of the same day, an explosion occurred in a café in the center of Gali – four people died and six were wounded.The Abkhazian authorities sharply criticized Tbilisi, pointing their fingers at the Georgian secret services, suggesting that the detractors simply wanted to show “the incompetence of the Russian peacekeepers and their inability to provide security for the population.”Meanwhile, Washington has laid all the blame on Russia, and in some unusually harsh terms, the State Department reaffirmed, “its strong support for Georgia’s territorial integrity, and calls for an immediate halt to recent bombings on both sides of the cease-fire line in Abkhazia, Georgia.” And in a move to demonstrate “fairness and objectivity”, Washington has also called Georgia and the “de facto authorities of Abkhazia” to restart direct negotiations without delay.Moscow, for its part, has interpreted the US declarations as “unacceptable ultimatums.” The Kremlin has launched its own warning through the government newspaper, Russian Gazette, which wrote that Moscow was being addressed “in a tone resembling a dialog, at a minimum, with a colonial regime,” and that Washington was itself “on slippery ground.” The paper went on to say “the US State Department avoids a mutual dialog with Moscow and Sukhumi and talks with Russia and Abkhazia as if they were colonies, the hot summer of 2008 in the Caucasus will flow into a hot autumn, and then into winter.”The resurgence of Russia as a true regional power combined with its desire to maintain its historical and geopolitical advantage in the region and the US insistence in securing a strategic petroleum pipeline that would run from Central Asia to the Black Sea constitute the biggest flash point—a true recipe—for a hot war in the Caucasus.   Comment this article or e-mail it to a friend.Also see Russia’s new era?Vladimir Putin solidifies his hold on power in RussiaRussia’s new interest in Southeast AsiaRussia and China in a strategic alliance to counter NATO’s global ambitions

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