MOSCOW (Reuters) - NATO will trigger outright secession by Georgia’s Moscow-backed rebel regions if the alliance puts Georgia on the path to membership, Russia’s ambassador to NATO told Reuters on Tuesday.
The Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions already run their own affairs but pro-western Georgia’s bid to join NATO could cement the split and make it more likely foreign states will recognize the separatists, Dmitry Rogozin said in interview.
Moscow is fiercely opposed to ex-Soviet neighbor Georgia joining the alliance, and the warning was delivered three weeks before a NATO summit in Romania at which members will consider whether to initiate the membership process for Georgia.
“Abkhazia and South Ossetia do not intend to join NATO. They have a completely different view,” Rogozin said in a telephone interview from Brussels.
“(Georgian President Mikhail) Saakashvili knows about that. It is precisely for that reason he conducted a referendum (on NATO membership) everywhere except South Ossetia and Abkhazia.”
That decision was an “historic mistake”, said Rogozin, “because in this way he personally excluded Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia.”
“As soon as Georgia gets some kind of prospect from Washington of NATO membership, the next day the process of real secession of these two territories from Georgia will begin.”
He signaled this could mean Russia throwing its weight behind the separatists’ campaign for international recognition, a possibility that alarms Georgia’s Western allies who say its territorial integrity should be respected.
Rogozin said recognition would be a matter for Russia’s political leadership. But he added: “My personal view is this: we will have no arguments remaining to stand in the way of this process.”
Western states are wary that Russia could use Kosovo’s split from Serbia as a precedent to justify recognizing the Georgian breakaway regions.
Responding to Rogozin’s comments, NATO spokesman James Appathurai said the alliance had taken no decision on whether to offer Georgia a Membership Action Plan, the first step on the path to membership.
“That being said, NATO allies fully and strongly support the territorial integrity of Georgia under any possible scenarios,” he said.
Abkhazia and South Ossetia threw off Tbilisi’s rule in fighting in the 1990s. They do not have international recognition, though Moscow provides aid and most of the population hold Russian passports.
The European Union voiced concern this week that Russia may be preparing to recognize Abkhazia, the bigger of the two rebel regions which lies a few kilometers from the site where Russia will host the 2014 Winter Olympic Games.
Moscow announced earlier this month it will drop formal trade restrictions on Abkhazia, a largely symbolic move to signal its support for the separatists.
In Tbilisi, the head of the Georgian parliament’s foreign relations committee said on Tuesday Moscow was waging a campaign to derail the country’s NATO membership bid.
“Russia’s steps and statements are hysterical,” Kote Gabashvili told Reuters. “When Russia made a decision on lifting sanctions on Abkhazia, they were starting their preparations for the NATO ministerial meeting.”
James Nixey, an analyst with the Russia and Eurasia program at Chatham House, a British-based think tank, said Tbilisi’s record on democracy and human rights — not Russia — was the main obstacle to Georgian NATO membership.
“Russia has plenty of levers but not really with regard to NATO accession and Georgia,” said Nixey.
“Ultimately the fact of the matter is that Georgia isn’t as liberal and democratic as it is made out to be and that is what is really hurting them (in their NATO bid).”
Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in Brussels and Margarita Antidze in Tbilisi; Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by