Georgia slams Putin's visit to Moscow-backed rebel region

Moscow (AFP) - Georgia reacted furiously on Tuesday after Russian President Vladimir Putin visited the Moscow-backed separatist region of Abkhazia on the anniversary of the outbreak of a brief war between Tbilisi and Moscow.

Putin visited the Black Sea resort town of Pitsunda in Abkhazia for talks with the leader of the self-proclaimed country, Raul Khajimba, on the ninth anniversary of the start of the war on August 8, 2008.

Georgia's foreign ministry condemned Putin's visit to what it called an occupied region as a "cynical action," saying it represented a continuation of Moscow's "deliberate policy against Georgia".

It urged Moscow to cease "provocative actions" and called on the international community to respond to Russia's "aggressive steps."

Abkhazia is internationally recognised as part of ex-Soviet Georgia but Russia sees it as a separate country -- along with another region, South Ossetia -- following the brief war with Georgia.

Moscow has thousands of troops stationed in the two breakaway regions in what Georgia calls a military "occupation", and supports them financially.

In televised comments, Putin stressed that Russia "firmly guarantees the security and self-sufficiency of Abkhazia, its independence. I am sure that this will continue in the future."

He described Russia's military base, which is shared with Abkhazian forces, as crucial to security in the region.

"The united Russian base on Abkhazia's territory continues to play a key role in providing stability in the region," Putin said.

Khajimba, like Putin, is a former officer in the Soviet-era KGB spy agency. He was elected president of Abkhazia in 2014 and shortly afterwards signed a strategic partnership deal with Moscow that formalised Russian dominance in the tiny separatist region.

Putin's visit came after two Russian tourists in Abkhazia were killed and dozens injured by an explosion at a munitions depot earlier this month. The region is popular with Russians as a cut-price holiday destination.

- Belarus 'annexation'? -

Meanwhile the exiled former leader of Georgia warned of more potential Russian dominance, saying Moscow could be preparing to annex neighbouring Belarus.

"I think Russia is preparing for takeover and annexation of Belarus," Mikheil Saakashvili told AFP in a telephone interview Tuesday during a visit to Lithuania's capital Vilnius.

A vocal Kremlin critic, stripped of both his Georgian and Ukrainian citizenship, he added that Russian military infrastructure deployed in Belarus for September's massive "Zapad" (West) manoeuvres "could be used for that at any time".

NATO states have expressed concern over Moscow's upcoming drills in Belarus and Kaliningrad, Russia's westernmost outpost, but have not suggested the Kremlin has designs on Minsk.

"Russia may be interested in having a full-fledged military base in Belarus, but an annexation means it would lose one of its last loyal allies and increase tensions with the West," said Laurynas Jonavicius, a Vilnius University analyst.

"I don't think Moscow needs that," he added.

Saakashvili was Georgia's president during the short war with Russia that saw his small military routed in just five days.

The charismatic reformer came to power in Georgia's 2003 Rose Revolution but then fell from grace and is now wanted by Georgian prosecutors on charges of abuse of office during his nine-year rule that he insists are politically motivated.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko meanwhile called his Georgian counterpart Giorgi Margvelashvili to voice his "solidarity" on the anniversary of "the start of the aggression on Georgia's territorial integrity," according to a statement from the Ukraine leader's office.

"Our hearts are with you," said Poroshenko, whose country saw its Crimea peninsula annexed by Moscow in March 2014, and which remains gripped by a pro-Russian insurgency in the east.