A year after war, Georgia and Russia point fingers over provocations

Tensions are spiking again, creating concerns about another conflict.

By , Correspondent

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    A worker constructs a mock 'Berlin wall' Wednesday to mark the Aug. 7 anniversary of the outbreak of fighting between Russia and Georgia, in the Georgian city of Gori, near the de-facto border with Georgia's breakaway province of South Ossetia. The Soviet dictator Josef Stalin is seen in the background,.
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As Russia and Georgia grimly observe the first anniversary of their destructive war last summer, tensions are spiking between the two, creating concerns that another war is possible.

Last year's war broke out after Georgian forces assaulted the breakaway statelet of South Ossetia, a de facto Russian protectorate, and were repelled by Russian tanks. The central dispute between the two has never been resolved, and there have been reports of Russian and Georgian troops taking potshots at one another along the border and belligerent words from both sides.

Though few expect any repeat of last summer's destructive blitzkrieg-like conflict, neither side has been taking any chances this year.

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Russia reportedly "beefed up" its forces along the troubled cease-fire line this week, and a top Foreign Ministry official warned of unspecified "Georgian provocations" aimed at stoking anniversary tensions. Russia claims that the US and former Soviet states like Ukraine are rearming Georgia for another attempt to seize South Ossetia and its fellow breakaway republic, Abkhazia.

"It is highly regrettable that the Americans are going to pump up Mikhael Saakashvili's military machine. That's a strange way to support democracy," Russian State Secretary, Grigory Karasin, told journalists this week.

Georgia: 'Moscow is stirring pot'

Georgian leaders insist it's Moscow that's stirring the pot, aiming to finish its business with Georgia by unseating President Mikhael Saakashvili and ending the little Caucasian state's quixotic effort to integrate with the West which began with 2003's "Rose Revolution."

"We don't expect a new Russian invasion, but the military threat is there. Russian troops are encamped just a few miles from our capital city, and this reality never leaves us," says Shota Utiashvili, a spokesman for Georgia's Ministry of Internal Affairs. "What worries us now are these aggressive Russian pronouncements, which are growing louder."

In Russia, whose armed forces crushed Georgia's US-trained army in a victorious five-day campaign last year, there is little satisfaction and growing worries over the long-term geopolitical cost of the operation.

Though experts say Moscow's military victory made the world sit up and take notice and probably slowed NATO expansion into the former Soviet Union, a strategic nightmare for the Kremlin, some say Russia today feels more isolated and insecure than ever.

Dmitri Suslov, an expert with the independent Council on Foreign and Defense Policies in Moscow, says Russia's overall influence within former Soviet republics appear to have been weakened, not strengthened, by the war.

"Even our closest allies failed to support us diplomatically" when Moscow extended postwar recognition to the independence claims of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, says Mr. Suslov. "Yes, we sent a message to the West that it has to take account of Russia's interests, and this probably contributed to the pause in NATO's eastward enlargement. But what we see, especially in the former USSR, is that Russia's actual influence has declined."

Polls show that the war remains popular among ordinary Russians, with 86 percent expressing "approval" of the Kremlin's actions last year in a survey released this week by the independent Russian Public Opinion Center.

In Georgia, which has suffered the probable permanent loss of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the mood is grim.

Despite $4.5 billion in international aid to Georgia after the war – nearly $1,000 per head – the tiny country's economy is in deep crisis and expected to shrink by up to 2 percent this year.

The country has also seen months of political protests and turmoil as a powerful domestic opposition coalition has sought to remove Mr. Saakashvili from power.

"The war underlined the reluctance of many countries, particularly in Western Europe, to support Georgia's membership in NATO," says Ghia Nodia, director of the independent, Tbilisi-based International School for Caucasus Studies. "Now we understand that to achieve greater cooperation with the West, we must put greater emphasis on solving our own domestic political problems."

He says Saakashvili's success in weathering protests so far makes it unlikely he'll lose power midterm.

"We won't see any changes of government through means other than elections," he says. "But there is still fear of Russia, an over arching security concern, and we have nowhere to turn (for protection) than to the West." [Editor's note: The original version misstated Mr. Nodia's gender.]

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