Russia tightened its control Wednesday over a second breakaway region of Georgia, with Russian President Vladimir Putin and the leader of South Ossetia signing a new treaty that calls for nearly full integration.
Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili denounced the signing as a "destructive" move against his nation's sovereignty and territorial integrity, and said it would exacerbate tensions. The United States, the European Union and NATO also strongly condemned the signing.
South Ossetia broke away from Georgia in the early 1990s as the Soviet Union collapsed. Russia effectively gained complete control over it and a second breakaway Georgian region, Abkhazia, after a brief war against Georgia in 2008.
A similar treaty was signed last year with Abkhazia. Both regions depend on subsidies from Russia. While Abkhazia is a lush sliver of land along the Black Sea coast, South Ossetia sticks like a thumb into northern Georgia.
Under the agreement signed Wednesday in the Kremlin, South Ossetia's military and economy are to be incorporated into Russia's. The treaty also promises to make it easier for South Ossetians to get Russian citizenship, and to raise salaries for civil servants and state pensions.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Washington doesn't recognize the legitimacy of the agreement.
"The regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia are integral parts of Georgia and we continue to support Georgia's independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity," she said in a statement.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the Russian move "blatantly contradicts the principles of international law, OSCE principles and Russia's international commitments."
The Georgian Foreign Ministry called Wednesday's signing ceremony an "intentional provocation," since it coincided with the latest round of talks in Geneva aimed at finding a diplomatic solution to the dispute.
Wednesday was also the one-year anniversary of Russia's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, emphasizing Russia's expansion of its territory on the Black Sea.
The Associated Press