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Russia to Ink Deal for Bases in Abkhazia

Bagapsh being greeted by an honor guard at Vnukovo Airport on Tuesday. Sergei Karpukhin

Russia on Wednesday is to sign a deal to build a Russian military base in the breakaway Georgian republic of Abkhazia, officials in the separatist government said, a move likely to further stoke tensions between Moscow and Tbilisi and further strengthen Russia's influence in the region.

Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov and his Abkhaz counterpart, Mirab Kishmaria, are to sign an agreement on military and technical cooperation Wednesday in the Kremlin, Lana Agrba, spokeswoman for the rebel region's foreign ministry, said by telephone Tuesday.

Agrba refused to reveal any details of the agreement, but the region's deputy defense minister, Garri Kupalba, told Reuters on Wednesday that it would "allow for one, united military base on Abkhaz territory for Russian land troops."

The new base, which would link several points across Abkhazia and accommodate some 3,000 land troops, including Russian border guard units, would be built "sometime in the near future," Kupalba told Reuters.

The agreement will be signed during a visit by Abkhaz leader, Sergei Bagapsh, a charismatic Abkhaz nationalist who was re-elected as the region's president earlier this month, is to meet with President Dmitry Medvedev for talks in Moscow on Wednesday.

The Russian government was to endorse the deal Tuesday and send it on to Medvedev for approval.

Russia recognized Abkhazia as an independent state in August 2008 after the Russian military crushed Georgian forces attempting to retake another rebel Georgian region, South Ossetia, which Russia also recognized as a sovereign nation. Russia's support of the separatist government in both regions has angered many Western governments. Only three other countries — Nicaragua, Venezuela and the small Pacific island-nation of Nauru — have followed Russia in recognizing the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Both Abkhazia and South Ossetia effectively broke away from Georgia in the early 1990s, and most residents in the two regions hold Russian passports.

Nikolai Silayev, a Caucasus specialist at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, or MGIMO, said Russia needed to build a military base in Abkhazia to counterbalance the presence of NATO forces in the region. Black Sea countries Turkey, Romania and Bulgaria are NATO members, while Georgia and Ukraine — also on the Black Sea — have sought to join the military alliance in recent years.

Russia started negotiations about building military bases in Abkhazia following the August 2008 war. Last year, a deputy head of the General Staff, Anatoly Nogovitsyn, said Russian military bases in Abkhazia and South Ossetia would be built in 2010 and would each host 3,700 Russian troops. A naval base on Abkhazia's Black Sea coast would also be built, Nogovitsyn said.

Georgia, backed by Western powers, opposed the initiative, describing it as a further violation of its sovereignty and territorial integrity.

On Tuesday, Georgian parliamentary speaker David Bakradze told reporters in Tbilisi that plans for the new base are illegal.

"Abkhazia and South Ossetia are Georgian territories, and the deployment of foreign troops on the territory of another country is called an occupation," Bakradze said, Reuters reported. "Since the Russian aggression in 2008, Abkhazia and South Ossetia have become one big military base for Russia."

Senior Russian and Abkhaz officials Wednesday will also sign cooperation agreements concerning transportation, including air transport, said Agrba, of the Abkhaz foreign ministry.

One of the agreements will restore direct flights between Russia and Abkhazia and oblige Russia to help repair the Sukhumi airport, she said.

Paata Davitaia, deputy speaker of the Georgian parliament, called on the Georgian leadership to ask the International Civil Aviation Organization to close Sukhumi's airport, saying an agreement on direct flights between Russia and Abkhazia "violates all international laws," Rosbalt reported.

Bagapsh is scheduled to give a lecture at MGIMO on Wednesday on the history of Russian-Abkhaz relations and meet Patriarch Kirill on Thursday, Agrba said.

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