MOSCOW, April 28 (RIA Novosti) - The Georgian breakaway republic of Abkhazia is prepared to sign a military agreement with Russia, the Abkhaz foreign minister said Monday.
"We are ready to sign a military agreement with Russia. We are ready to observe all Russian interests in the region in exchange for military protection by Russia and open economic cooperation," Sergei Shamba said, speaking on the phone to a RIA Novosti correspondent.
Shamba also said if Russia had an interest in a military presence in Abkhazia, then the republic was ready to oblige. "We realize that Russia has military interests in Abkhazia, because it's a strategically important region," he said.
The head of the Russian lower house's committee on CIS affairs, Alexei Ostrovsky, suggested on Monday waiting until Abkhazia's status has been better defined before talking about a possible Russian military presence in the republic.
Abkhazia and South Ossetia broke away from Georgia in 1991 following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Georgia is looking to regain control over the two republics.
Russian President Vladimir Putin called earlier this month for closer ties with the breakaway republics. Putin's statement provoked an angry response from Tbilisi, with Georgia's foreign minister accusing Russia of attempting "to annex" the two republics.
Georgia also claims that on April 20 a Russian MiG-29 Fulcrum fighter from the Gudauta military base in Abkhazia, where Russian peacekeepers have been stationed since the end of a bloody conflict in the early 1990s, shot down a Georgian drone, a claim Russia has denied.
The incidents have seen relations between Moscow and Tbilisi plunge to a new low.
Ex-Soviet breakaway regions have stepped up their drive for self-rule since Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia on February 17. Abkhazia and South Ossetia, along with Moldova's Transdnestr, have all asked Russia's parliament, the UN, and other organizations to recognize their independence.
The State Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament, proposed in March that the president and the government consider the issue of whether to recognize the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Valery Kenyaikin, the Russian Foreign Ministry's ambassador at large, said on April 25 that Russia would do everything possible to protect the interests of Russian citizens living in Georgia's breakaway republics.
"We will not leave our citizens in Abkhazia and South Ossetia in difficulty and this should be clearly understood... We will do everything possible to avert a military conflict." He also added however that Russia would "have to use military force," if the need arose.
Sergei Mironov, speaker of the Federation Council, Russia's upper house of parliament, said on Monday, commenting on Kenyaikin's statement that: "Russia proceeds from the fact that a great number of Russians live in Abkhazia. It is evident that if there is a threat to the lives of Russian nationals - or any other threat - Russia will not remain on the sidelines."
Also on Monday, acting Georgian Foreign Minister David Bakradze called Mironov's statement an attempt by Moscow to switch to "a policy of military aggression."
"This threatens switching from a policy of annexing our territories to a policy of direct military aggression," he told journalists in Brussels.
Georgia's Rustavi-2 TV station also quoted Bakradze as saying that Georgia would attempt to get Russian peacekeeping forces stationed in Abkhazia replaced with NATO peacekeepers.
NATO spokesman James Appathurai told Georgian TV reporters in Brussels that all NATO members believe that the Russian peacekeeping contingent should leave the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict zone.
Vakhtang Lezhava, a deputy Georgian economic development minister, told journalists on Monday that Georgia would link its consent to Russia's admission to the World Trade Organization to the Abkhazia and South Ossetia issue. He said in particular that Tbilisi was seeking a retraction of President Putin's statement on the strengthening of ties with the breakaway republics.