Georgian rebel region to vote on independence

By Niko Mchedlishvili

TBILISI, Sept 11 (Reuters) - Georgia's breakaway region of South Ossetia said on Monday it would hold a fresh referendum on independence in November, a move certain to fuel tensions between Russia and Georgia.

The move, denounced in Tbilisi as a "political absurdity", appeared timed to take advantage of international negotiations on giving Kosovo independence from Serbia which the South Ossetian leadership sees as favourable to its cause.

"South Ossetia will hold a referendum on independence on November 12," Tamara Kelekhsayeva, a spokeswoman for the South Ossetian leadership, told Reuters by telephone.

The tiny region tucked away on Russia's southern Caucasian border fought a brief war in the early 1990s for independence from ex-Soviet Georgia. A referendum is certain to result in a near-unanimous vote in favour of maintaining the break.

People would be asked if they agreed or not that the region "should preserve its present status of an independent state and be recognised by the international community," Kelekhsayeva said.

Besarion Jugeli, one of the leaders of the United National Movement party, which has a majority in the Georgian parliament, told Reuters: "This is political absurdity as this referendum will have no legal force."

Georgia accuses Russia of propping up the rebel province's rulers and its parliament in July accused Moscow of trying to annex the territory together with Abkhazia, another breakaway province of Georgia.

Tension with Russia has risen since Mikhail Saakashvili was elected Georgian President in 2004, vowing to re-unify his country.

The South Ossetian leadership appeared to be taking its cue from Russian President Vladimir Putin who told a meeting on Saturday that if Serbia's breakaway province of Kosovo was given independence then the same should apply to ex-Soviet regions seeking self-rule.

Putin mentioned South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the Dnestr region that broke away from Moldova in the 1990s and Nagorno-Karabakh, a separatist region of Azerbaijan, according to people at the meeting.

Dnestr will hold a referendum on September 17 to confirm its residents' support for independence. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has said it would not recognise the vote.

Though South Ossetia voted for independence in a referendum in 1992, the rebel leadership clearly wants to be able to point to a more recent vote to argue its case.

"This is a different era and a new generation has grown up," Ina Gabaraeva, a South Ossetian government spokeswoman, said.

"A new referendum should confirm the desire of Ossetians for independence from Georgia."

The referendum is scheduled for the same day as South Ossetia's presidential election.

Russia has peacekeeping troops in South Ossetia. Moscow says they keep the two sides apart, while Tbilisi complains that they side with the separatists.

For many years South Ossetia earned much of its revenue importing diesel, cigarettes and alcohol from Russia and selling them on, bypassing Georgian customs tariffs. Saakashvili has tried to crack down on this trade.


Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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