By David Brunnstrom and Susan Cornwell
BRUSSELS/WASHINGTON, April 18 (Reuters) - The United States and European Union urged Russia on Friday to reverse a strengthening of ties with separatist regions of Georgia that has alarmed the government of the former Soviet republic.
Moscow announced on Wednesday it would establish legal links with Georgia’s breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions, which border Russia. Georgia called it a step towards annexation.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice telephoned her Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov to express unhappiness over the move, which was decreed by President Vladimir Putin.
"We are very concerned at the steps that have been taken and we have made our views known," Rice told reporters.
Her spokesman Sean McCormack said in a statement: "We urge Russia to live up to its statements of support for the principles of Georgian sovereignty and territorial integrity and to repeal the April 16 instructions."
EU president Slovenia, in a statement on behalf of the 27-nation bloc, urged Moscow not to go ahead. "The EU urges all parties involved to refrain from any actions that could lead towards the escalation of the situation in the region," it said.
Abkhazia and South Ossetia threw off Tbilisi’s control in the early 1990s after fighting wars with the Georgian government, which wishes to bring them back under its influence and which resents the moral support and practical help Russia has offered them for years.
Western states suspect Russia of trying to punish Georgia, a small Caucasus nation, for its bid to join NATO — an effort actively supported by the United States at a NATO summit in Bucharest this month.
"CROSSED THE RED LINE"
Georgian Deputy Prime Minister Georgy Baramidze met EU and NATO officials in Brussels, where he called the Russian step "very, very dangerous" and a threat not just to Georgia, but to all Europe and the Western alliance.
"The Russians have crossed the red line and Europe and the Euro-Atlantic community must react ... to prove they are willing to protect young democracies," he told a news conference.
"We want our friends ... to persuade Russia to reverse this decision. We believe a united Europe and a united Euro-Atlantic community will be heard in the Kremlin," Baramidze said.
Despite its small size, Georgia is strategically important because it sits astride key energy pipeline routes. Russia wants to keep its southern neighbour within its sphere of influence, and views potential NATO membership as a Western military encroachment into its own back yard.
Despite the moves on the breakaway regions, Putin on Friday ordered restoration of postal links with Georgia and a lifting of visa restrictions. He also instructed his government to consult Georgia on allowing food products back on to the Russian market, following a ban on its wine and mineral water.
Moscow cut rail, aviation and postal links after Georgia arrested four Russian servicemen on spying charges in late 2006. It also imposed restrictions on issuing entry visas to hundreds of thousands of Georgians who work in Russia.
Last month Russia resumed passenger flights to Georgia and said it was reopening shipping links.
"Russia is trying to create the illusion that it is determined to cooperate with Georgia," Georgian Foreign Minister David Bakradze told journalists in Tbilisi. "We’re confident this move...will not mislead our American and European friends."
"If Russia believes it can annex one third of Georgia’s territory and at the same time normalise ties with the remaining two thirds, then it is making a big mistake."
In a statement on the Rice-Lavrov conversation, Russia’s foreign ministry did not say whether Moscow would consider repealing the order on the breakaway regions.
"Sergei Lavrov outlined our principled assessments, specifically stressing the importance of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s order on a set of steps to normalise relations with Georgia," it said. (Additional reporting by Mark John in Brussels, Susan Cornwell in Washington, Dmitry Solovyov in Moscow and Margarita Antidze in Tbilisi; editing by Mark Trevelyan)