Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said he approved of a plan to give Georgia's breakaway region of Abkhazia autonomy but not full independence, a sign Moscow will not support a break-up of the ex-Soviet state.
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has offered Abkhazia, which broke away in a war in the 1990s, a package that would return it to Georgian control but give it autonomy, the post of vice-president, free trade zones, and seats in parliament.
"I very much hope that the plan that Saakashvili proposed will gradually be introduced because overall it is the right plan," Putin said in an interview with France's Le Monde newspaper, conducted during a visit to Paris and attended by Reuters. It was published on Saturday.
"It just needs the other side to agree to it. You need to conduct a dialogue," he said.
Putin's apparent support was surprising because Moscow backs the separatists. However, his condition that Abkhazia must agree to the plan is unlikely to be fulfilled: the separatists rejected the Georgian plan when it was first presented.
Some diplomats say for a time this year tensions over the region, a stretch of land on Georgia's Black Sea coast, escalated to the point when the two were on the brink of war.
Putin was Russian president until May when he handed over the job to his protege Dmitry Medvedev. Some diplomats hope the handover could lead to a more conciliatory approach towards Georgia, an aspiring NATO member.
Medvedev is expected to hold talks with Saakashvili in Russia's second city of St Petersburg early next month. It will be their first meeting since Medvedev, a 42-year-old lawyer and Kremlin insider, took over the presidency.
The row over Abkhazia has pitted Russia against Western states that support Georgia and want to see it join NATO.
Saakashvili's peace plan has been rejected by Abkhazia's separatists, who say they will settle for nothing less than full independence from Tbilisi.
Since the start of this year Russia has sent in extra peacekeeping troops to Abkhazia and intensified ties with the separatist administration, steps that Tbilisi said amounted to a creeping annexation of part of its territory.
In one incident, an unmanned Georgian spy drone was shot down over Abkhazia by what a United Nations report said was a Russian fighter plane. Moscow denied involvement.
Russia says its priority is to prevent bloodshed and protect Abkhazia from possible Georgian aggression. Some observers say its real aim is to punish Georgia for its NATO ambitions and seek revenge for Kosovo's split from Serbia, which it opposed.
In the newspaper interview Putin indicated that he would continue to take a firm line on Georgia.
"What are these (Georgian spy) flights? It's reconnaissance. And why do you conduct reconnaissance? To support military actions," said Putin. "Does that mean one of the sides is preparing to spill blood? Do we want that?"
The conflicts over Abkhazia and a second Georgian rebel territory of South Ossetia fuel instability in a region of strategic importance to the West as a transit route for oil and gas from the Caspian Sea.
ReutersGüncelleme Tarihi: 31 Mayıs 2008, 15:16