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

Tensions are spiking again, creating concerns about another conflict.

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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.

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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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