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Russia plans to sign a series of deals with Abkhazia
Russia plans to sign a series of deals with Abkhazia to bolster the Georgian breakaway region as an independent state, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.

Russia recognized Georgia's breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states after Tbilisi's offensive to retake the latter in early August. The decision and Russia's counterattack were strongly condemned by the West, which threatened sanctions against the country.

Speaking at a joint news conference with Abkhazian leader Sergei Bagapsh late Sunday, Lavrov said Moscow would sign comprehensive treaties on cooperation and mutual assistance with Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the next few days. He expected a host of economic agreements to follow.

"As allies do, we will sign agreements with Abkhazia on various aspects of life, including in defense and security, border cooperation and customs," Lavrov said, adding that agreements on free trade, taxation, customs and the banking sector were being planned.

Lavrov also said the Russian troops' presence in the republics would be legitimized by the major cooperation treaties. Lavrov earlier said a total of 7,600 troops would be deployed in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, more than twice the size of its peacekeeping contingents before the armed conflict with Georgia.

"As to Russian troops in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, their status will change. They are not peacekeeping forces, but a Russian military contingent deployed there under the Russian president's order and at the request of the Abkhazian and South Ossetian leaders," the minister said. "Their status will be finally determined in the next few days by the treaties on cooperation and mutual assistance."

Lavrov's trips to Abkhazia and South Ossetia come as NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer is due to visit Georgia leading a mission of the Western military alliance as a sign of support for the Caucasus state after the brief war with Russia.

Georgia's Western-leaning leadership has sought membership in the military bloc, but some NATO members have been cautious to further antagonize Russia by expanding deeper into the former Soviet Union. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are already members of the alliance, along with most former members of the Warsaw Pact.

Lavrov also reiterated that an Abkhazian and South Ossetian presence at international forums on security in the Caucasus was essential.

He said the return of Georgian refugees to Abkhazia, part of the French-brokered peace deal which is to be discussed at an international conference in Geneva on October 15, would only be possible after trust had been restored in the region.

"Talk of the refugees' return will be possible after all wounds made by the war have been healed and trust, strongly undermined by the aggression against Tskhinvali and preparations for a similar onslaught on Abkhazia, restored," the foreign minister said.

Lavrov said Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili had himself set the timeframe for refugees' return when he pledged not to use force against the breakaway territories: "Bloodshed in the Caucasus is remembered for centuries, not years," the Georgian president said.

Lavrov also reiterated that Russia is not seeking to overthrow Saakashvili, but cannot treat him as a partner after he ordered the shelling of South Ossetia.

"We are not in the business of putting someone on or removing someone from a throne," he said. "We have tried to find areas of common interest and sign agreements with Tbilisi, but they were often thwarted by Georgia."

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