EU concerned at Russian moves on Abkhazia
(Updates with comments from Rupel, Solana, Bildt)
BRUSSELS, March 10 (Reuters) - The European Union voiced concern on Monday at signs that Russia and its allies may be preparing to recognise Georgia's breakaway republic of Abkhazia, weeks after Kosovo's Western-backed secession from Serbia.
Moscow dropped formal trade restrictions on the rebel region on Thursday, prompting the pro-Western Georgian government to accuse the Kremlin of trying to destabilise the Caucasus region.
"Georgia is a point of concern for us, because the Russian Federation and the Confederation of Independent States decided to draw certain parallels with Kosovo on this issue," Slovenian Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel told a news conference after chairing a meeting of EU foreign ministers.
Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, while stressing that such an outcome was hypothetical at this stage, raised concerns about the dropping of trade restrictions being followed by an influx of Russian investment into the territory.
"That could look like a de facto annexation and that would be a matter of great concern if it were the case," said Bildt.
EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said he had discussed the issue at length by telephone with Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili during the weekend.
Asked what action the 27-nation bloc could take, he said: "What we can do now is to support what the president is doing, continue to bring Georgia closer to the EU through the mechanisms that are in place already and be prepared to listen to what he says."
Some 15 EU countries have recognised Kosovo's independence so far since the overwhelmingly ethnic Albanian territory declared its secession from Serbia against Belgrade's wishes on Feb. 17 after the failure of U.N.-mediated final status negotiations.
Russia has long argued that Western recognition of Kosovo's secession sets a precedent that will cause chaos by pushing other regions of the world to seek independence.
The EU insists Kosovo is a unique case and does not constitute a model for any other territory.
EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said: "There is a growing preoccupation and anxiety that Russia may be paving the way for recognition of Abkhazia.
"Georgia's territorial integrity has always been clearly supported by the EU ... this is absolutely clear," she told reporters before the ministers discussed Georgia at their monthly meeting in Brussels.
Two EU states, Sweden and Poland, had written to EU partners urging the bloc to do more to stabilise Georgia ahead of a parliamentary election in May, Ferrero-Waldner said, adding EU help could include easier visas and a trade pact.
Moscow had maintained a formal ban on trade with Abkhazia from 1996, though Georgia says Russia had for years also provided financial aid to prop up the rebels.
Georgian politicians have said the lifting of Russia's formal sanctions on Abkhazia relieves Moscow of obligations not to send weapons, military equipment or mercenaries there.
Abkhazia has repeatedly pressed for international recognition and followed Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence with a renewed diplomatic campaign. (Reporting by David Brunnstrom and Paul Taylor; Editing by Janet Lawrence)