Russian President Dmitry Medvedev visited South Ossetia on Monday, in a trip apparently designed to assert Russia's ties to the breakaway Georgian region and dash Georgia's hopes of regaining sovereignty over it.
Georgian officials called the visit — the first by Medvedev since last year's war between Russia and Georgia — a provocation.
Russian TV showed footage of Medvedev walking along a street in South Ossetia's main city, Tsinkhvali, and receiving raucous applause by cheering crowds, some chanting "Thank you!" as he left his limousine.
He later met with the region's leader, Eduard Kokoity, and pledged that Russia would complete the building and infrastructure projects in South Ossetia.
"I want to express my gratitude for inviting me to visit this new country, this new state, South Ossetia, which appeared as a result of difficult, dramatic events and which the Russian people have certainly supported," Medvedev told Kokoity in televised comments.
Kokoity said, "The South Ossetian people are grateful for your support, for recognizing our nation (as independent). And our ancient nation of South Ossetia thanks you for saving our tiny people."
Russian leader visits military
Russian news agencies said Medvedev also visited a Russian military base in Tsinkhvali and quoted him as saying that there were a "number of projects for the economic and social restoration of the republic."
"There is a lot of work to be done," he was quoted as saying.
South Ossetia and another Georgia region, Abkhazia, have long had de-facto independence from Georgian government control, and Russia has backed their separatist governments, giving residents Russian passports and providing other aid.
Last August, Georgia attacked Tsinkhvali, trying to reassert its control. In response, Russia invaded, routing the Georgian army and humiliating Georgia's U.S.-backed government.
Since then, Russia has recognized the two regions as independent nations, based thousands of Russian troops in each region and poured money into their infrastructures. No other nation, aside from Nicaragua, has recognized the two regions.
Russia also has blocked efforts to extend monitoring missions by the United Nations and other groups in the regions.
Georgian officials respond dimly
Georgian officials, meanwhile, reacted dimly to Medvedev's announced visit.
"If Medvedev has nowhere else to go except Tskhinvali ... there's nothing you can do. We expect provocations from the Kremlin," Temuri Yakobashvili, Georgia's minister for reintegration, told The Associated Press.
Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, meanwhile, said it was "shameful" that Medvedev decided to visit South Ossetia while Saakashvili was in neighboring Turkey, attending the signing ceremony for a major gas pipeline.
"I don't know if anyone has told him about this, but this (visit) was completely amoral and shameful," Saakashvili said in televised comments.
Saakashvili joined leaders of Turkey and several European nations in Ankara for a signing ceremony for the Nabucco pipeline to bring natural gas from Central Asia and the Caspian Sea to Western markets — and bypassing Russia.
Georgia already hosts a major pipeline for Caspian Sea oil headed to Western markets.