ANALYSIS-Georgia Rebel Confidence Rises After Fighting

By Conor Sweeney

Wed Aug 13, 2008 11:48am EDT

MOSCOW, Aug 13 (Reuters) – Georgia’s efforts to bring the breakaway
region of South Ossetia to heel have backfired so drastically that
it may have lost control of both it and rebel-held Abkhazia for
good. Western diplomats and analysts said Georgian President Mikheil
Saakashvili has little hope of reasserting his authority in the two
regions after his failed invasion of South Ossetia.

A ceasefire agreement to end nearly a week of fighting between
Georgian and Russian troops has given a new sense of confidence to
the separatists in Abkhazia, and in mountainous South Ossetia and
Abkhazia, which hugs the Black Sea.

Sergei Shamba, self-styled foreign minister of Abkhazia, told Reuters
that Georgia should now accept it is a separate country.

"We have held talks with Georgia for 15 years and now we will only
talk with them after recognition of our independence," Shamba said.

"There have been several drafts and they rejected them all. It’s
clear to me that it’s pointless talking to them."

Self-styled South Ossetian President Eduard Kokoity made similar
independence demands on Wednesday, Russian media reported.

Georgian troops struck at pro-Russian South Ossetia last Thursday
to retake it from separatists but the action provoked a massive
retaliation from Moscow, whose troops drove the Georgian forces back.

At the same time, fighters in Abkhazia pushed back Georgian forces
from their last stronghold there.

The result is a new power balance in the region.

"Militarily, Russia has achieved its strategic goal. It has
demonstrated its ability to strike," wrote in an analysis.

"Russia ejected Georgia completely from Abkhazia and South Ossetia
and has largely destroyed Georgia’s war-fighting capability.

"And with talk of ‘partial demobilisation’ as a condition for peace,
Georgia could be hobbled for quite some time."

Moscow may take different approaches to the two regions, said the
editor of Russia in Global Affairs, Fyodor Lukyanov.

Neither should be directly compared with Kosovo, which unilaterally
declared independence from Serbia this year with the backing of many
Western countries.

"The difference between Abkhazia and Kosovo is that the U.S. was
able to mobilise 40 countries to recognise Kosovo but Russia can’t
expect any single country to do it — not even Belarus or Armenia,"
Lukyanov said.


One scenario would be for South Ossetia to achieve independence
eventually before being absorbed into Russia, though Abkhazia may look
to countries like ex-Yugoslav Montenegro, as an example for its future.

"Abkhazia is weak but a de facto state whereas South Ossetia is not
self-sufficient, Georgia is not an option anymore so it can exist
only as part of the Russian Federation," Lukyanov said.

Although Abkhazia is belligerent towards Tbilisi and says it has
now taken full control of the Kodori gorge — the one district of
its territory Georgian forces had held – Shamba took a softer line
towards the United States.

"Against America, we have no problems, they did not give these weapons
to be used against us. This is a geopolitical question," Shamba said.

The United States has been Tbilisi’s strongest Western ally since
the 2003 "Rose Revolution" brought Saakashvili to power.

But following Kosovo’s independence — which Moscow opposed on the
grounds it would set a precedent for other frozen conflicts — both
the Abkhazians and South Ossetians redoubled diplomatic efforts.

Despite its financial and political support, Moscow has never said
it will recognise their independence.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov compared Georgia to Cyprus,
suggesting frozen conflicts could remain unresolved for decades,
as on the divided Mediterranean island.

Western diplomats think Moscow has more to gain by maintaining the
uneasy situation than resolving it.

"It’s clear that there has never been a great incentive for Russia to
solve these problems as it keeps Georgia dangling," said one Western
diplomat familiar with French peace efforts. (Additional reporting
by Oliver Bullough in Sukhumi; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

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