TBILISI, Georgia Georgia said Friday it will sever diplomatic ties with Moscow to protest the presence of Russian troops on its territory. Russia criticized the move, pinning blame for a breakdown in relations on Tbilisi.
Georgia's remaining diplomats in Russia will leave Moscow on Saturday, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Nato Chikovani said.
Lawmakers had voted unanimously late Thursday to break off ties with Russia, branding it an "aggressor country" in their conflict over two Russian-backed separatist regions in Georgia.
Russia criticized the decision. "Breaking off diplomatic relations with Tbilisi is not Moscow's choice, and the responsibility lies with Tbilisi," the ITAR-Tass news agency quoted Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko as saying.
Russia will have to close its embassy in Georgia if ties are severed, the RIA-Novosti agency quoted an unnamed ministry official as saying. However, both nations' consulates will remain open important for the many Georgian citizens living in Russia.
Adding to the tension, a lawmaker in South Ossetia said Friday that Russia intends to eventually absorb the breakaway province at the center of the war that broke out Aug. 7 when Georgia sent troops into South Ossetia to wrest back control from separatists, prompting Russia to send in hundreds of tanks and troops.
The five days of warfare ruined already frayed Georgian-Russian ties and caused the biggest crisis in Moscow's relations with the West since the 1991 Soviet collapse.
Russia blasted Tbilisi's military offensive as blind aggression, saying the move deprived Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili of the moral authority to defend Georgia's territorial integrity.
Georgia and the West in turn criticized Russia for pressing further into Georgia proper and for ignoring a cease-fire brokered by the European Union. EU leaders are meeting Monday in Brussels to discuss the crisis.
This week, Moscow announced that it will recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia, another separatist Georgian region with strong ties to Russia, as independent.
South Ossetian parliamentary speaker Znaur Gassiyev said Friday that Russia will absorb South Ossetia within "several years" or earlier. He said that position was "firmly stated" by both the province's leader, Eduard Kokoity, and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in talks in Moscow earlier this week.
In Moscow, a Kremlin spokeswoman said Friday there was "no official information" on the talks.
A Georgian lawmaker said his country will eventually regain control of South Ossetia and another rebel region, Abkhazia.
"The separatist regimes of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and the Russian authorities are cut off from reality," Gigi Tsereteli said in Tbilisi. "The world has already become different and Russia will not long be able to occupy sovereign Georgian territory.
"The regimes of Abkhazia and South Ossetia should think about the fact that if they become part of Russia, they will be assimilated and in this way they will disappear," he added.
The tiny province had unofficial, yet vital, trade routes to Georgia proper sealed off by Russian soldiers after the de facto borders were fortified. It is now a place effectively cut off from the outside world save a three-lane tunnel that burrows through the Caucasus range and into North Ossetia and Russia.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Tuesday that there was no reason South Ossetia could not exist as an independent state, and that recognition was not meant as a prelude to Russian absorption. But he did not expressly rule it out.
"Soon there will be no North or South Ossetia there will be a united Alania as part of Russia," South Ossetia's deputy parliamentary speaker Tarzan Kokoiti said, using another name for Ossetia.
"We will live in one united Russian state," he said.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin accused the United States on Thursday of instigating the fighting in Georgia and said he suspects a connection to the U.S. presidential campaign a contention the White House dismissed as "patently false."
Putin said that Russia had hoped the U.S. would restrain Georgia, which Moscow accuses of starting the war by attacking South Ossetia on Aug. 7. Instead, he suggested the U.S. encouraged the nation's leadership to try to rein in the separatist region by force.
Kurt Volker, the U.S. Ambassador to NATO, said Friday that the fighting was prompted by Russian pressure and shelling from South Ossetia.
"We did have lots of contacts with Georgia over a long period of time. And the nature of that has always been to say 'don't let yourself get drawn into a military confrontation here,"' Volker said in an interview with the British Broadcasting Corp. "Georgia found it too hard to hold that line when they were seeing what Russia was preparing to do."