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Russia warns of Kosovo repercussions

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia said on Friday international recognition of Kosovo would influence its policy towards the Georgian breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but it did not say if it would recognize them.

Kosovo women walk past a poster which reads: "Celebrate with Dignity. For a Good Start. For Kosovo", in Pristina February 15, 2008. REUTERS/Hazir Reka

Kosovo is expected to unilaterally declare independence from Serbia on Sunday and then be recognized by the United States and most members of the European Union. Russia backs its ally Serbia in opposing the move.

Russian officials have linked Kosovo’s status to Georgia’s separatist regions, saying any recognition of the Serbian province as an independent state would create a legal precedent that would be followed by others.

“We will, without doubt, have to take into account a declaration and recognition of Kosovo independence in connection with the situation in Abkhazia and South Ossetia,” Russia’s foreign ministry said in a statement.

The statement, posted on the ministry’s Internet site, made no mention of whether Russia would grant recognition to the two regions.

Earlier, Interfax news agency quoted the foreign ministry as saying Russia would change its policy on the breakaway regions if Kosovo was recognized. It later amended its report, removing the reference to a change in policy.

The statement on the Internet site said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had talks on Friday with Abkhazia’s separatist leader Sergei Bagapsh and Eduard Kokoity, president of South Ossetia’s separatist administration.

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Abkhazia and South Ossetia broke away from ex-Soviet Georgia in fighting in the 1990s. Some observers have said Russia might grant them recognition in response to Western states recognizing Kosovo.

Russia already provides financial aid to both regions and the majority of residents hold Russian passports. Moscow has peacekeeping troops in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Russia has stopped short of granting the regions recognition because, analysts say, it fears that could encourage its own separatists.

President Vladimir Putin on Thursday described recognition for Kosovo as “immoral and illegal” and said he had a plan on how to respond if Western states back Kosovo’s independence.

He did not disclose any details of the plan but he said Russia would not “ape” the Western recognition of Kosovo, a signal that Russia’s response would not involve Moscow recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Writing by Christian Lowe; editing by Elizabeth Piper