MARCH 13 2008 16:29h

Russia Seeks to Deepen Links With Rebel Regions




Kremlin loyalists said Kosovo`s independence from Serbia had created a legal precedent that forced Russia to change its stance.

Russia's parliament discussed deepening links with rebel regions in former Soviet satellites on Thursday, a step that may stoke Western fears Moscow will soon recognise them as independent.

Pro-Kremlin lawmakers have submitted recommendations that include opening Russian missions in Georgia's breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and in the Moldovan region of Transdniestria.

Kremlin loyalists, who dominate the lower house of parliament, said Kosovo's independence from Serbia had created a legal precedent that forced Russia to change its stance.

"Our counterparts on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean have opened a Pandora's Box (by recognising Kosovo)," said Alexei Ostrovsky, chairman of the lower house's committee on former Soviet affairs.

"The world community should understand that from now on the resolution of conflicts in the ex-Soviet area cannot be seen in any other context from that of Kosovo," he said at a parliamentary hearing.

Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transdniestria have been running their own affairs since separatist wars in the 1990s. They do not have international recognition and the United States and European Union oppose independence for them.

Moscow provides aid to the three regions and has issued many of their residents with Russian passports. Since Kosovo declared its independence, some Russian officials have signalled they favour granting them recognition.

The hearing was attended by Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin and senior figures from the three breakaway regions.

The hearing is part of a consultation process. The next stage will be to form proposals and, if approved in committee, they would be drafted into legislation and put before the full parliament for a vote.

The recommendations drafted by Ostrovsky's committee include: -- Examining the possibility of opening Russian missions in the three regions. -- Boosting humanitarian and economic assistance for Russian passport holders in the breakaway regions. -- "Examining the possibility of changing the format" for Russia's relations with Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transdniestria. The document's authors say this could include granting recognition. -- A proposal to abolish customs tariffs on goods imported into Russia from businesses in the three regions that have Russian shareholders. Large parts of the economies in the rebel regions are in Russian hands.