UNITED NATIONS Georgia's foreign minister said on Thursday he doubted Russia would resort to military action in response to planned NATO exercises in Georgia that Moscow has described as a provocation.
In an interview with Reuters, Grigol Vashadze dismissed Russian objections to next month's exercises, saying no country could dictate to Georgia over its "sovereign right" to stage them.
Russia demanded on Thursday that NATO call off the exercises, which it said could undermine its efforts to rebuild ties with the Western alliance. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the war games would not help efforts to restore stability in the restive Caucasus region, Interfax news agency reported.
Ex-Soviet Georgia has become a focus of tension between the West and Russia, which sees it as part of its sphere of influence. NATO's offer of eventual membership for Georgia has angered Moscow, which sent troops into Georgia last August.
Vashadze said that event meant fresh Russian action was "not something unimaginable," but added, "At this stage I would say that Russia would be afraid to undertake a new military aggression against Georgia because it would be entering in confrontation with the rest of the civilized world."
Georgia and Russia accused each other on Thursday, however, of building up troops and armor at the de facto borders between their forces, and preparing "provocations.
Russia says its invasion of Georgia last August was to repel an attempt by Tbilisi to restore Georgian control over the pro-Moscow breakaway province of South Ossetia.
Vashadze said NATO exercises in Georgia were the "sovereign right of Georgia and NATO and no other country, no third party shall have judgment or influence over that matter.
"It's not Mr. Lavrov's discretion or competence to dictate to us what kind of exercises we shall have in Georgia."
The instability in the Caucasus had been caused not by Georgia but by the actions of Russia and its predecessor the Soviet Union, the Georgian minister said.
Earlier, Russian envoy to NATO Dmitry Rogozin described the exercises as "absurd and a provocation," telling Reuters he had asked the alliance secretary-general to delay or cancel them.
NATO says the exercises, to be held 12 miles east of Tbilisi from May 6 to June 1, will involve 1,300 troops from 19 countries. It says they are benign, and will be based on a fictitious U.N.-mandated, NATO-led crisis response operation.
Vashadze was visiting the United Nations to talk to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on the future of U.N. observers in another Georgian breakaway region, Abkhazia, which has been in doubt since the South Ossetia conflict. Their current Security Council mandate expires in mid-June.
Turning to internal troubles in Georgia, where a week-old street campaign by opposition demonstrators has sought to force the resignation of President Mikheil Saakashvili, Vashadze said he believed the dispute would end through talks.
He said a drop in the number of protesters from 25,000 to 1,500 would "bring them, eventually, to a negotiating table, and we will do our best to include them into the political process."
The 41-year-old president has rejected opposition calls to quit over his record on democracy and last year's disastrous war with Russia.
(Editing by Eric Beech)