Georgia says 2008 war encouraged Russia to take Crimea

TBILISI (AFP) - The failure of the international community to punish Russia for its 2008 invasion of Georgia has let Moscow think it can get away with seizing Ukraine's Crimea region, Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili said Tuesday.

"The fact that the 2008 scenario used by Russia in Georgia - when a sovereign state's territories were seized with military force - is now being employed again in 2014 against another country proves that in the last six years both we and our partners have failed to stand up to Russia," Mr Margvelashvili told AFP in an interview.

Tensions between Tbilisi and its Soviet-era master Moscow over the breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia exploded into a brutal five-day war that saw Russian troops sweep into Georgia.

In the wake of the conflict the Kremlin recognised both South Ossetia and a second separatist territory, Abkhazia, as independent countries and stationed thousands of troops there in what Tbilisi decries as a de facto occupation.

Now Moscow's deployment of its forces across the Crimea peninsula following the ouster of Kremlin-backed president Viktor Yanukovych and the announcement of a referendum that could see the region join Russia have stirred a painful sense of deja vu in Georgia.

"Today we can state with regret that we and the international community have failed to use these six years to force Russia to realise that actions like these are wrong and ineffective," Mr Margvelashvili said. He said that Russian moves to give passports to people living in Crimea echoed tactics used in the run-up to the 2008 war and called for international reaction this time round to be forceful enough to check any future territorial aggression by the Kremlin.

"A strong and unequivocal response must be formulated that means such scenarios can never be repeated and that the idea of a (Russian) sphere of influence is dropped," Mr Margvelashvili said.

Georgia hopes to seal a historic pact to deepen political and economic ties with the European Union before the end of the year, the culmination of years of pro-Western policies that have sparked fury in Moscow.

Last year a shock decision by Yanukovych under pressure from Moscow to renounce a similar deal for Ukraine sparked the months of protest that eventually led to his downfall.

Georgian officials have warned that they expect Moscow to try to put the squeeze on Tbilisi ahead of the signing of the EU deal.

"The Ukraine crisis forces us to be more vigilant," Margvelashvili said.

Diplomatic relations between Georgia and Russia have been virtually non-existent since the 2008 war but Margvelashvili has also said that trying to normalise ties with Moscow remains a priority.

Margvelashvili in November replaced US ally Mikheil Saakashvili - who led Tbilisi into the disastrous conflict with Moscow - but so far little progress has been made on improving links with Russia.

Lawmakers from Mr Saakashvili's party have criticised the new government for not taking concrete steps to back up its condemnation of Russia's actions in Crimea.