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KIEV, Ukraine — As the world watches Moscow-backed separatists win control of more land in Ukraine, critics fear Russian President Vladimir Putin is quietly grasping for new territory elsewhere.
This time, he’s apparently eyeing Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two separatist territories that split from Georgia in the early 1990s.
On Wednesday, Russia signed a precursor to a broad integration agreement with South Ossetia, which the Georgian government fears will mean Moscow’s annexation of the region. Abkhazia already signed a similar, though less expansive, pact late last year.
To Georgia’s dismay, the bilateral agreements are aimed at pulling both regions further into the Kremlin’s orbit by coordinating economic, defense and foreign policies.
While the two de-facto states have long taken their cues from Moscow, the current agreements may turn them into more permanent Russian protectorates, some experts say.
Michael Cecire, an analyst at the U.S.-based Foreign Policy Research Institute, says the deals are “much closer to actual annexation” than any previous overtures toward partnership, since the new pacts would give Russia greater control over the two territories.
For years, the breakaway regions have enjoyed the trappings of statehood, such as their own government agencies, state symbols and national narratives, that have helped the local authorities legitimize their rule.
Moscow, which recognized their independence in 2008, has provided cash, security and political patronage to help make that possible. Now it wants to formalize the relationships.
Russia is reeling from the effects of Western sanctions over Ukraine and a steep decline in oil prices. Russian money already accounts for up to three-quarters of the Abkhaz coffers and more than 90 percent of South Ossetia’s budget. So why would the Kremlin want to continue shouldering the economic burden of propping up two more contested enclaves?
It may be the longer-term payoff that counts most.
Critics say that by integrating the two Georgian territories, as well as by fueling the separatist insurgency in Ukraine and supporting another breakaway statelet in eastern Moldova, Moscow is keeping those countries away from Europe’s grasp.
“A basic prerequisite for democracy and democratic state-building is control over one’s territory,” wrote Robert Orttung, a George Washington University professor, and Christopher Walker, of the National Endowment for Democracy, in Foreign Policy last week.
“By undermining its neighbors’ territorial integrity, Russia seeks to distract the governments in Kiev, Kishinev, and Tbilisi from successfully pursuing reforms to reduce corruption and build representative institutions,” they wrote, referring to the capitals of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia.
Those countries all signed association agreements with the European Union last year. But the unresolved territorial disputes mean that other key steps toward closer cooperation — such as NATO or EU membership — are a long way off.
For their part, Russian officials have denied claims that Moscow is violating Georgia’s territorial integrity, even though most of the world considers both Abkhazia and South Ossetia part of Georgia.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov even said his government’s treaty on Wednesday with South Ossetia, on an official state border, was meant to “dispel speculations” of any sinister motives on Russia’s part.
“It’s not that we want to annex someone,” said Vladimir Yevseev, an analyst at the Institute for CIS Countries, a government-linked think tank in Moscow. “The conversation is not about that.”
He added that Russia is wary of exacerbating its strained political relationship with Georgia by openly absorbing the territories.
“The problems [with Georgia] are already there,” Yevseev said, “but it’s not necessary to worsen them.”
This story originally appeared at GlobalPost.
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