epa04494158 Prime Minister of Georgia Irakli Garibashvili holds a press briefing with EU Parliament President Martin Schulz (not pictured), after a meeting at the EU Parliament in Brussels, Belgium, 18 November 2014. Garibashvili is in Brussels for a two-days visit to attend several EU meetings. EPA/JULIEN WARNAND
Irakli Garibashvili © EPA

Georgia’s prime minister has called on the international community to condemn the treaty Russia signed on Monday with Abkhazia, calling it “another step towards annexation” of the breakaway Georgian region by Moscow.

Irakli Garibashvili said he believed the agreement signed by Russian president Vladimir Putin was a reaction against Georgia’s aspiration for closer integration with Europe, after Tbilisi signed a political and trade deal with the EU in July.

He “did not doubt” Moscow would sign a similar agreement now being prepared with South Ossetia, the other breakaway Georgian region that, like Abkhazia, has been occupied by Russia since its 2008 war with Georgia.

But Mr Garibashvili told the Financial Times that western leaders needed to hold “direct dialogue” with Mr Putin to end the crisis in Ukraine, insisting sanctions alone could not achieve a settlement.

“We are mobilising the international community to condemn this action of the Russian government,” Mr Garibashvili said of Monday’s agreement with Abkhazia. “We are expecting more condemnation from our European and American friends.”

The treaty would see Abkhazia co-ordinate its foreign defence, economic and social policy with Moscow. It goes much further than a series of previous accords by creating joint security and police forces and unified customs posts.

The agreement, coming eight months after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, has aroused concerns in western capitals that Moscow might launch creeping attempts to absorb other disputed territories or areas of “frozen conflict” in former Soviet republics.

Along with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, another region in focus is Transnistria, the Russian-backed enclave in Moldova. Like Georgia and Ukraine, Moldova also signed an EU integration deal this year, and its voters will this Sunday choose between pro-European and pro-Moscow parties in parliamentary elections.

The US state department said on Monday it would “not recognise the legitimacy of any so-called ‘treaty’ between Georgia’s Abkhazia region” and Russia. It insisted it considered Abkhazia and South Ossetia “integral parts of Georgia”.

Mr Garibashvili took over a year ago as prime minister from billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili – whose Georgian Dream coalition swept the government of President Mikheil Saakashvili from power in 2012.

The Georgian Dream government has trodden a fine line, attempting to rebuild trade ties with Moscow that had been severed when Mr Saakashvili was in power, while continuing to move closer to the EU and Nato.

Mr Garibashvili said better trade relations with Moscow had benefited both sides. But there had been “no improvement” in political relations as Russia had refused to budge on Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which Tbilisi insists should be reintegrated with Georgia.

“It shows that [Russia] does not respond to our constructive policy in the same spirit,” Mr Garibashvili said. “We have proved that we are a constructive government, we are pragmatic people, we want to have peace and normalised relations with everyone, including Russia. Our European integration aspiration is our choice . . .[but] it is not against anybody.”

He insisted his government had “never provoked” Russia – and its signing of an EU integration deal in the summer was not a provocation.

Former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich’s decision not to sign an EU deal a year ago, under intense Russian pressure, sparked the protests that eventually toppled him in February. The revolution was followed by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the Russian-backed rebel uprising in eastern Ukraine.

Mr Garibashvili said the west’s failure to respond more robustly to Russia’s aggression in Georgia in 2008 had led Moscow to believe it could get away with its intervention in Ukraine.

But he said “sanctions alone” could not change Russia’s behaviour – while mooted steps such as providing western lethal arms to Ukraine risked only escalating the war there.

“Without dialogue, this conflict cannot be solved,” Mr Garibashvili said. “There must be direct dialogue with the Russian leader. Western leaders should negotiate.”

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