(Reuters) -The president of the Georgian breakaway region of South Ossetia on Friday announced the territory would hold a referendum on July 17 on whether to become part of Russia, Tass news agency said.
Moscow recognized South Ossetia and the coastal region of Abkhazia as independent after fighting a war with Georgia in 2008. It has provided extensive financial support, offered Russian citizenship to their populations and stationed thousands of troops there.
Tass said President Anatoly Bibilov made the announcement in a decree. The small largely mountainous region has a population of around 60,000 and borders North Ossetia, which is part of Russia.
Bibilov said on March 30 that South Ossetia would take steps in the near future to join Russia, prompting Georgia to denounce the idea of a referendum as unacceptable.
As in the Russian-speaking Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, Moscow has used recognition of the breakaway regions, and the awarding of citizenships, to maintain an armed presence in an area of the former Soviet Union that it sees as part of its natural sphere of influence.
In Ukraine, Russia’s long-standing support for armed separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk gave it a platform to launch a large-scale military invasion on Feb. 24.
(Reporting by Kevin Liffey and David Ljunggren; Editing by Chris Reese and Bill Berkrot)