Georgia: Separatist Vote Illegitimate

The Associated Press
Saturday, November 11, 2006; 10:17 PM

AVNEVI, Georgia -- Georgia on Saturday denounced an independence referendum in the breakaway province of South Ossetia, calling it illegitimate and saying it would only deepen the ethnic divide in the country.

Voters will be asked Sunday whether they support independence from Georgia and wish to seek international recognition for the tiny, mountainous region which broke away from the central government in a war 14 years ago.

The referendum is expected to receive overwhelming approval because ethnic Ossetians make up the majority of the province's population. However, a similar 1992 referendum proclaiming the province's independence went unnoticed by the international community, leaving the region in limbo.

The United States and Europe support Georgia's pro-Western aspirations and back its territorial integrity. They have chosen to ignore the vote.

Even the Kremlin, which has cultivated strong ties with the separatists and is in a bitter conflict with Georgia's government, has stopped short of recognizing the referendum. But it has stressed the right of ethnic groups to self-determination.

The Georgian Foreign Ministry on Saturday challenged the legitimacy of the vote and said it would only increase mutual distrust in the region.

The Ossetians want to be incorporated into neighboring Russia, which has granted nearly all residents Russian passports and cultivated strong political and economic ties with the impoverished region that lives on subsistence farming and smuggling.

Ethnic Georgians in the province want to rejoin the rest of the country.

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili has vowed to bring South Ossetia and another separatist province, Abkhazia, to heel. He has put forward a peace plan that would decrease Russia's role in the region and focus on demilitarization and reconstruction.

The separatists have refused to consider it, asking that Tbilisi first sign a nonaggression pact. Separatist leaders and Russian officials accuse Georgia or preparing to take the two regions by force _ claims Tbilisi denies.

South Ossetian authorities said Saturday they uncovered a plot by Georgian security forces to kill Eduard Kokoity, the region's president, and stage a coup. Georgian Interior Ministry's chief of staff Shota Khizanishvili dismissed the allegations as "sheer nonsense."

© 2006 The Associated Press