Australia Lashes Russia Over Aid

Daniel Flitton

AUSTRALIAhas delivered a broadside toRussiaover ”cheque-book diplomacy” in the South Pacific, accusingMoscowof using foreign aid to buy support for puppet states on the other side of the world.

Australiahas lodged a formal complaint with the superpower over a push to have tiny Pacific island countries accept the independence of the disputed territories South Ossetia and Abkhazia – scene ofRussia’s 2008 war withGeorgia.

Only a handful of countries recognise the sovereignty of the two breakaway regions butRussiahas been driving a campaign to win them diplomatic recognition.Moscowhas convincedTuvalu- with a population of about 10,500 and suffering acute water shortages – to set up formal ties withSouth Ossetiaand Abkhazia after an undisclosed grant.

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It follows a reported $US50 million ($A48.3 million) promise of aid to Nauru in return for the island nation of about 9300 people granting sovereign recognition to the separatist provinces.

Tuvalu Prime Minister Willy Telavi established diplomatic links withRussiaat the United Nations inNew Yorklast month, two days after agreeing to a recognition pact with the separatist territories.

”What we are seeing here is really the exploitation of one of the smallest countries in the world,” said Labor’s Richard Marles, parliamentary secretary for Pacific island affairs in the federal government.

Mr Marles told The Age that whileAustralia was disappointed withTuvalu, it was clearRussia was exploiting foreign aid. ”It would be naive on the part of the Russians to think that these payments would not become well known in the Pacific. This kind of cheque-book diplomacy undermines development assistance in the region,” he said.

It is not the first timeAustraliahas been drawn into dispute withRussiaover its bitter conflict in the former SovietprovinceofGeorgia.Australiawas heavily criticised byMoscowwhen Labor froze planned sales of uranium toRussiain protest over the military intervention.

The latest skirmish raises the prospect that Prime Minister Julia Gillard will faceRussia’s wrath during a summit of east Asian leaders inIndonesianext month. It will be the first timeRussiahas participated in the meeting, with President Dmitry Medvedev to attend as he winds down before Vladimir Putin’s expected return to the Kremlin.

Georgian leaders made a trip toNew Zealandduring the Rugby World Cup to press complaints overRussia’s meddling in the region.

Another Pacific island nation,Vanuatu, has also been drawn into the dispute after establishing formal ties with Abkhazia, only to later drop the recognition.

Georgia’s Foreign Minister, Grigol Vashadze, held talks with Mr Marles inGeelong10 days ago and gave an assurance his country would not engage in a bidding war withRussiaover recognition of the breakaway territories.

The Pacific has for decades been the stage for a spat betweenChinaandTaiwanas both countries plied small island nations with soft loans in exchange for sovereign recognition. That competition has faded in recent years, only forRussiato now fill the void.

Mr Marles stressedAustraliadid not regard the Pacific as its exclusive patch but that other countries should be transparent with aid.

”None are aware of the precise details and this is part of the issue … This seems linked to a political agenda on the other side of the world, not a development agenda in the Pacific.”

A spokesman for the Russian embassy inCanberra, Timur Zevakhin, saidRussia’s policy was ”absolutely transparent” in the Pacific. ”We are very surprised at any country’s speculation of Russian interference. We support the sovereign right of any state to recogniseSouth Ossetiaand Abkhazia.”

The Age

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