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Georgia is accusing Russia of organizing a stealth campaign to annex its northern province of Abkhazia after 150,000 Abkhazians were awarded Russian passports in the past month.

The new passports, which now allow 70 per cent of the population in the breakaway province to claim Russian citizenship, were hastily issued before a June 30 deadline that tightened the regulations permitting former Soviet citizens to take Russian passports.

But the resulting war of words is just the latest in a spiral of deteriorating relations between the Georgian government in Tbilisi and their former masters in Moscow.

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The international community regards Abkhazia as an integral part of Georgia, but the area has been effectively independent of Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze's government for nine years, separated from the rest of the country by a buffer zone patrolled by 3,000 Russian "peacekeepers." The soldiers were stationed there after a brief but bloody civil war in the early 1990s, after which Abkhazia claimed independence.

The peacekeepers' mandate expired on the weekend, but Russia has not withdrawn its troops and is pushing for a formal extension.

The Georgian foreign ministry issued a statement insisting that Abkhazians are Georgian citizens, and calling the Russian passport distribution an "unprecedented illegal campaign."

Mr. Shevardnadze suggested in a recent national radio address that Moscow may be preparing for further intervention in Abkhaz affairs. He said deputies in the Duma, Russia's parliament, planned the campaign so Moscow could one day take action to defend its new citizens in the region.

"The amendment, which was made to the law as a result of persistent demands by a group of Duma deputies, who had wicked intentions, effectively amounts to covert annexation and the violation of Georgia's sovereignty."

Officials in Abkhazia's secessionist movement said they were not officially involved in the passport program, but added they had been actively encouraging residents to take part.

Anri Djergenia, one of the leaders of Abkhazia's secessionist movement, told The Moscow Times that he has been a Russian citizen for several years.

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"I have made my choice. The more Russian citizens who live in Abkhazia, the greater the guarantee that Georgia will not begin a new war. Every great power is duty-bound to defend its citizens, wherever they live."

Relations between Russia and Georgia have been rocky almost since the moment the Soviet Union began breaking apart in 1991. In addition to Abkhazia, Russia has troops stationed in a second separatist province, South Ossetia.

Russia has long accused Georgia of not doing enough to prevent Chechen rebel fighters from taking shelter in its lawless Pankisi Gorge. Russia says the rebels have links to the al-Qaeda terrorist network. Georgia has acknowledged the problem of the rebels' flight, but recently snubbed Moscow by turning to the United States for help in training its military.

However, in an interview yesterday, Anatoli Chekoyev, a Communist deputy and part of the Duma's committee on relations with the former Soviet republics, said regional politics should not obscure the point that the Abkhazians have chosen Russian citizenship on their own.

"They don't want to be Georgians. Their human rights should be respected, and these people should be able to claim whatever citizenship they prefer."

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