By Adrian Croft
BRUSSELS (Reuters) – NATO criticized Russia on Wednesday for expanding its border deeper into Georgia’s breakaway Abkhazia region, a move Moscow has portrayed as a temporary step to expand a security zone around the Sochi Winter Olympics.
“We have noted the recent decision to temporarily extend the so-called border zone of Abkhazia further into Georgian territory without the Georgian government’s consent,” NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen said.
“We are very concerned about that decision,” he told a news conference in Brussels after talks with Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili.
Moscow recognized Abkhazia and another rebel Georgian province, South Ossetia, as independent states after a brief war between Russia and Georgia in 2008.
Georgia condemned Russia last month for shifting its boundary with Georgia 11 km (7 miles) deeper into Abkhazia, calling it an “illegal action” that violates Georgian sovereignty.
Russia says it is a temporary step to create a security buffer around the Winter Olympics, which begin on Friday in the city of Sochi, which is close to Abkhazia.
Russian forces went on combat alert in Sochi and tightened restrictions on access to the Black Sea resort last month after two suicide bombings in the southern city of Volgograd which killed 34 people.
Georgia has had no diplomatic relations with Russia since the 2008 war and is not sending a government delegation to the Sochi Olympics, although it will let its athletes compete.
Rasmussen said NATO remained “firmly committed to Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity within its internationally recognized borders”. He also criticized Russia for building a barbed-wire border fence around South Ossetia.
“The building of fences and other obstacles is unacceptable and it is contrary to international law and Russia’s own commitments. It hampers the free movement and livelihood of the population and it should be reversed,” Rasmussen said. “The 21st century is for bridge-building, not fence-building.”
NATO promised eventual membership to Georgia in 2008, but its bid has been on hold since its war with Russia.
Rasmussen said NATO stood by its 2008 commitment to Georgia but said no decisions had yet been taken on whether Tbilisi would move any closer to its goal of joining the Western alliance at the next NATO summit in Wales in September.
Russian-NATO relations have long been strained over the U.S.-led alliance’s plan to deploy an anti-missile shield around Western Europe to protect against attack from Iran and North Korea. Russia fears the system’s interceptors would be able to shoot down its long-range nuclear missiles.
Last week, U.S. officials said Washington was reviewing whether Russia’s testing of a new ground-launched cruise missile violated a major arms control treaty.
(Additional reporting by Margarita Antidze in Tbilisi, editing by Mark Heinrich)