AP Interview: Abkhazia’s leader seeks closer ties with Venezuela, rejects US criticism

By Christopher Toothaker, AP
Friday, July 23, 2010

Abkhazia’s leader seeks closer ties with Chavez

CARACAS, Venezuela — The leader of a separatist region in the former Soviet republic of Georgia said Friday he is building closer ties with Venezuela and seeking President Hugo Chavez’s help in gaining international recognition for Abkhazia as an independent state.

Venezuela is one of only four countries — including Russia, Nicaragua and the small South Pacific island nation of Nauru — that have recognized Abkhazia as independent.

Abkhazia leader Sergei Bagapsh said officials are working on dozens of potential cooperation agreements with Venezuela, including accords to increase trade and to receive technical assistance from Venezuela’s state oil company as Abkhazia explores for crude.

Bagapsh said he would speak with Chavez about the possibility of Venezuela persuading more Latin American governments to recognize Abkhazia, but he said those efforts could be difficult because the United States does not consider the region a separate country and has allies in Latin America.

“We understand that recognition is a long and difficult process, and we understand that the United States has much influence in the region,” Bagapsh said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Russia recognized the two separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent after the 2008 Russian-Georgian war and has kept troops there.

Bagapsh said there are 1,800 Russian soldiers in Abkhazia, saying they help with border security. He argues their presence is relatively insignificant. Georgia and many Western countries say the military presence amounts to Russian occupation.

Bagapsh was visiting Caracas along with South Ossetia’s leader, Eduard Kokoity. The two leaders met later Friday with Chavez, who called their homelands “new republics that are working hard for their development.”

Before meeting with Chavez, Bagapsh hailed Thursday’s advisory ruling by the U.N. International Court of Justice that Kosovo’s declaration of independence from Serbia did not violate international law, saying it’s a sign that Abkhazia’s sovereignty claims are legitimate.

“I think the decision itself will have a great influence on the efforts we are making,” Bagapsh said, speaking through an interpreter. “There can be no double standards.”

He also took issue with suggestions by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton that Russia is occupying Abkhazia.

“She’s too important of a politician not to know what occupation means,” he said.

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