August 26, 2008 / 3:06 PM / 11 years ago

Q&A - What could happen next in Caucasus conflict

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian announced on Wednesday it recognised the rebel Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent countries. Here are some questions and answers about what might happen next.

Will any other countries recognise the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia?

Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev called for other countries to recognise the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, but there was no immediate sign of support. Moscow’s closest ally Belarus is considered the most likely to follow. Analysts have mentioned Serbia, Venezuela, Cuba, Syria and Iran as countries that may respond positively.

What about the rest of the ex-Soviet states in the Commonwealth of Independent States?

Both Georgia and Ukraine condemned the move, while the other member states were not enthusiastic supporters of Russia’s position in the recent conflict and may therefore be very slow to follow Moscow’s latest lead.

“The CIS countries have given a rather muted reaction to the conflict, which is a discomfort that can only be accentuated now,” said one Western diplomat.

Will the West recognise South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent?

Major Western countries like the United States, Britain, France and Germany all reacted very negatively to Russia’s move, saying their priority was Georgia’s territorial integrity.

Can Abkhazia and South Ossetia function as independent countries?

Abkhazia and South Ossetia are in different situations. Abkhazia, with a self-estimated population of around 340,000 and a sub-tropical climate with tourism potential, may try to survive as an independent country under Moscow’s security umbrella.

South Ossetian leaders have already stated that, although they first want to have their independence recognised, they may then consider becoming absorbed into Russia. With a population of around 70,000 and little economic activity, South Ossetia’s ability to self-sustain is doubtful.

What will the United States do in response to the announcement?

Washington condemned Russia’s role in the recent conflict with Georgia, but stopped short of threatening far-reaching punitive measures. Washington may reconsider its options and could suggest that Russia should be thrown out of the G8.

Since Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Monday queried the benefits of joining the World Trade Organisation in the short-term, the threat of exclusion from this body will not concern Moscow.

How will the EU respond?

French President Nicolas Sarkozy had already called an emergency summit of European leaders for September 1. The EU had been divided between ardent critics of Russia from the new east European member states and countries like France and Germany that have been closer to Moscow in recent years. But with Paris and Berlin increasingly critical, the likelihood of the EU presenting a common position now looks much higher.

Given Europe’s dependency on energy imports from Russia, the likelihood of a tough response, such as economic sanctions, seems remote, though the talks on a new partnership agreement are likely to halt.

Could there be a military confrontation?

The Black Sea has begun to fill up with naval vessels from NATO countries in close proximity to Russia’s Black Sea flagship, the guided missile cruiser Mosvka. Tensions also remain high in some disputed villages between Georgia and South Ossetia, so the possibility of a confrontation of some kind cannot be ruled out.

Do Russians support Medvedev’s move?

A recent survey by independent pollsters Levada, taken during the recent conflict, found 46 percent of those questioned want South Ossetia to become part of Russia and a further 34 percent said it should be independent. Only four percent said it should remain part of Georgia. There was no question on Abkhazia.

Reporting by Conor Sweeney; editing by Robert Hart

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