News & Current Affairs

August 25, 2008

Russian MPs back Georgia’s rebels

Russian MPs back Georgia’s rebels

An Abkhaz separatist tank crewman relaxes in the Kodori Gorge on 14 August

Abkhazia used the Ossetia conflict to drive out remaining Georgian troops

Both houses of Russia’s parliament have urged the president to recognise the independence of Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

The unanimous votes in the Federation Council and State Duma are not binding on President Dmitry Medvedev.

But they could provide Mr Medvedev with bargaining chips in talks with the West, analysts say.

Russia fought a brief war with Georgia this month after Tbilisi tried to retake South Ossetia by military force.

Most of Russian ground forces pulled out of Georgia last Friday, following a French-brokered ceasefire agreement between Moscow and Tbilisi.

It’s a historic day for Abkhazia… and South Ossetia
Sergei Bagapsh, Abkhazian leader

But some Russian troops continue to operate near the Black Sea port of Poti, south of Abkhazia, and have established checkpoints around South Ossetia.

On Monday, a senior Russian commander said Russian troops would be carrying out regular inspections of cargo in Poti.

Moscow has defended plans to keep its forces near the port, saying it does not break the terms of the truce.

Russia has also said it will not allow aerial reconnaissance in the buffer zones it had set up.

The US, France and UK say Russia has already failed to comply with the ceasefire terms by creating buffer zones around South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Both regions have had de facto independence since breaking away in the early 1990s.

While they have enjoyed Russian economic and diplomatic support, and military protection, no foreign state has recognised them as independent states.

Since the fighting over South Ossetia ended nearly two weeks ago with the ejection of Georgian forces from both provinces, the Russian military has established controversial buffer zones along their administrative borders with Georgia proper.

‘Hitler’ comparison

The upper house, Federation Council, voted 130-0 to call on President Medvedev to support the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

The lower house, the State Duma, approved the same resolution in a 447-0 vote shortly afterwards.

South Ossetians demonstrate for independence in Tskhinvali on 21 August

South Ossetians rallied for independence last week

The Federation Council speaker, Sergei Mironov, said both Abkhazia and South Ossetia had all the necessary attributes of independent states.

During the debate in the two chambers, several speakers compared Georgia’s military action in South Ossetia with Hitler’s Second World War invasion of the Soviet Union.

Both Abkhaz leader Sergei Bagapsh and his South Ossetian counterpart, Eduard Kokoity, addressed the Russian lawmakers before the votes, urging them to recognise the independence of the two regions.

“It’s a historic day for Abkhazia… and South Ossetia,” UK said, adding that Abkhazia would never again be part of Georgia.

Mr Kokoity thanked Russia for supporting South Ossetia during the conflict with Georgia, describing President Medvedev’s move to deploy troops as “a courageous, timely and correct” decision.

He said that South Ossetia and Abkhazia had more rights to become recognised nations than Kosovo, which declared independence from Serbia earlier this year with support from the US and much of the European Union.

Both houses of the Russian parliament are dominated by allies of President Medvedev and his Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin.

The lawmakers interrupted their summer holidays for extraordinary sittings, formally called at the request of separatist leaders in the two Georgian provinces.

Thousands of people attended pro-independence rallies in the Abkhaz capital Sukhumi and war-ravaged South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali on Thursday.

Kosovo or Northern Cyprus?

While both provinces have been pushing for formal independence since the break-up of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, Russia’s official line at least until now has been similar to that of the West, the BBC’s Humphrey Hawksley reports from Moscow.

BBC map

But in March the State Duma passed a resolution supporting independence should Georgia invade or rush to join Nato.

After Monday’s votes, the bill will be sent to the Kremlin for approval.

Analysts say the Kremlin might delay its decision while it carries out wider negotiations with the West on the crisis, says our correspondent.

If it backs the move, the two regions could apply to the United Nations for recognition, which would almost certainly be vetoed in the Security Council.

They could also ask for support from Russia’s allies from as far afield as Venezuela and Cuba, our correspondent notes.

Analysts say the two new aspirant nations could end up like Kosovo and be accepted by a substantial number of governments.

Alternatively, they could become largely isolated and recognised only by Russia, in the same way that Northern Cyprus is recognised only by Turkey.

Much of it would depend on the measure of Russia’s international influence, our correspondent adds.


Should Abkhazia and South Ossetia be independent? Can normal life ever be resumed in Georgia?

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August 21, 2008

Rebels push to sever Georgia ties

Rebels push to sever Georgia ties

Pro-independence rally in Sukhumi, Abkhazia, 21 Aug 08

Russian TV showed a huge crowd at the rally in Abkhazia

The separatist leaders of Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia have urged Russia to recognize their independence, at mass rallies.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow’s response to their pleas would depend on the conduct of Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili.

Russia says it will keep troops in a security zone around South Ossetia.

The zone will stretch several km into Georgia proper. Russia also plans to reinforce its South Ossetia force.

“Tomorrow, eight checkpoints will be established in the security zone in which 500 peacekeepers will be deployed, no more than that,” said Mr Lavrov, quoted by Reuters news agency.

It is still not clear to what extent Russian military forces have withdrawn from Georgia, despite Moscow’s promise to pull out most of its troops by the end of Friday.

Russian troops on Abkhazia/Georgia border

Russian troops moved far into Georgia from the breakaway regions

Russian news agencies say an armored column, consisting of more than 40 vehicles, has passed through South Ossetia, on its way to the Russian border.

A correspondent in the Georgian village of Igoeti, just 35km (21 miles) from the capital Tbilisi, said he saw the Russian military pulling back towards South Ossetia early on Thursday afternoon. Russian forces were also reported still to be dug in around Georgia’s main Black Sea port of Poti.

Russia poured troops into Georgia after Georgian forces tried to retake South Ossetia on 7 August. Russian-led peacekeeping troops had been deployed there since a war in the early 1990s.

Thousands of people attended pro-independence rallies in the Abkhaz capital Sukhumi and war-ravaged South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali on Thursday.

The world-renowned conductor Valery Gergiyev – himself an Ossetian – plans to give a concert in South Ossetia with his St Petersburg orchestra on Thursday.

Chill in NATO-Russia ties

Meanwhile, Russia says it is reviewing its co-operation with NATO, which has insisted that Moscow pull its troops out of Georgia, in line with a French-brokered ceasefire agreement.

PEACE PLAN
No more use of force
Stop all military actions for good
Free access to humanitarian aid
Georgian troops return to their places of permanent deployment
Russian troops to return to pre-conflict positions
International talks about security in South Ossetia and Abkhazia

Nato said on Tuesday there could be no “business as usual” with Moscow.

At an emergency meeting, NATO suspended formal contacts with Russia because of the Russian military presence in Georgia.

“Relations with NATO will be reviewed,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko was quoted as saying by Interfax news agency on Thursday.

“This will apply to the military co-operation programme,” he said.

Nato has accused Russia of failing to respect the truce, which requires both Russian and Georgian forces to pull back to the positions they held before heavy fighting erupted in South Ossetia.

On Wednesday, Norway’s defence ministry said Russia had informed Norwegian diplomats that it was planning to freeze co-operation with Nato.

Norway’s Aftenposten newspaper said Oslo was trying to establish exactly what impact the Russian decision would have on existing co-operation, such as joint rescue operations and border controls. Norway shares a border with Russia in the Arctic.

A statement from the Norwegian defence ministry said: “Norway notes that Russia has decided that for now it is ‘freezing’ all military co-operation with Nato and allied countries.

“We expect that this will not affect planned activities in the areas of coastguard operations, search and rescue and resource management, because on the Russian side these are handled by civilian authorities.”

Russia has not yet given Norway formal written notification about its suspension of co-operation, a ministry spokesperson said.

Russia’s permanent envoy at Nato headquarters in Brussels, Dmitry Rogozin, has been recalled to Moscow for consultations, Russia’s Itar-Tass news agency reports.

He said that in light of Nato’s position on the Georgia conflict, relations with Nato “really cannot remain as before”, but he added that “there will not be a cold war”.

A state secretary in Norway’s defence ministry, Espen Barth Eide, said “there’s no doubt that our relationship to Russia has now chilled”.

Georgia map

August 20, 2008

Georgia facing reality of defeat

Georgia facing reality of defeat

Institute for War and Peace Reporting
When Russian troops eventually pull out of Georgian towns such as Gori and Zugdidi, ordinary Georgians will heave a sigh of relief.

Russian soldiers guard Georgian prisoners near Poti

Russia’s military has emerged a clear victor in the latest conflict

But that will also be the moment that they take on board the fact that the two territories at the heart of the conflict with Moscow, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, although formally still regarded internationally as Georgian territory, are now essentially lost to them.

The people who will suffer most in the long term from this conflict are more than 20,000 ethnic Georgians from a mosaic of villages in South Ossetia who have now mostly fled.

Relatively few Georgians left during or after the small-scale 1990-92 conflict over South Ossetia and despite intermittent skirmishes and incidents, neighborly contacts continued.

Reporters who have passed through many of the villages in the last few days say they are now in ruins.

The Russian authorities and their South Ossetian allies are now saying that they will not allow the Georgians back any time soon.

A Russian foreign ministry statement on August 18 said, “It is clear that some time – and not a short period of time – must pass in order to heal the wounds and to restore confidence. Only after this, the conditions will be created for discussing practical aspects related to the problems of refugees.”

Hundreds of South Ossetians also lost their homes in the Georgian military assault of 7-8 August and, it appears, in the ensuing Russian counter-attack – but they have the small consolation of knowing they can start rebuilding them.

Russian leverage

The prospect is also now much bleaker for the 240,000 or so ethnic Georgians who were registered as displaced from the 1992-3 conflict in Abkhazia.

Refugees from Gori in Tbilisi

Refugees have flooded into Georgia’s capital from areas near South Ossetia

Their hopes of return were predicated on a successful peace agreement which now looks more elusive than ever.

Around 50,000 Georgians live in Abkhazia’s southernmost Gali district under an Abkhaz administration.

So far they have managed to stay in their homes, but their future is also more precarious.

It is not just a matter of Georgian control. It will also be harder now to maintain an international presence in the two disputed regions.

The final point in the six-point ceasefire plan reads: “Pending an international mechanism [in South Ossetia], Russian peacekeeping forces will implement additional security measures.”

That effectively puts an end to the former Joint Peacekeeping Forces, which had a Georgian contingent.

It also gives Moscow even more leverage than before over the shape of any security arrangements for the region.

Moscow is already insisting it can have the only real security presence there.

“We are of course not against international peacekeepers… but the problem is that the Abkhaz and the Ossetians do not trust anyone except Russian peacekeepers,” Russian president Dmitry Medvedev told German chancellor Angela Merkel.

Unattainable dream

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the only international organization with a mandate in South Ossetia, wants to dispatch an additional 100 monitors to South Ossetia.

Abkhaz fighters

Abkhaz fighters were backed by Russian forces against the Georgians

But Russia has dragged its feet, saying it wanted to agree the terms of their deployment in more detail and the OSCE has so far agreed to send just 20 more monitors.

The OSCE had just nine military monitors on the ground in South Ossetia when fighting started there on 7-8 August.

The European Union, with French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner taking the lead, also says it want to provide peacekeepers, but Mr Kouchner’s Swedish counterpart, Carl Bildt, admitted this might not work.

“There are no signs of the Russians letting in anyone else,” he said.

In Abkhazia, the United Nations has a small contingent of around 130 unarmed monitors, who were bystanders in the recent crisis.

When the Abkhaz, with Russian support, wanted to capture the mountainous Upper Kodori Gorge district from the Georgians, they merely gave the UN monitors there a 24-hour warning to leave.

The EU has approved small aid programmes for both Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the last few years, but they have looked relatively modest when compared to the vast amount of Russian money coming into both regions.

Abkhazia is bigger and more diverse than South Ossetia with a lively media and many non-governmental organizations.

Many Abkhaz intellectuals dreamed of having some kind of independence free of both Georgia and Russia and with links across the Black Sea to the EU but that now looks unattainable.

‘Double standards’

Internationally mediated peace talks over both disputes had stalled and there is little chance of them resuming properly any time soon.

Faced with a tightening Russian grip, Western leaders can only fall back on expressing support for Georgia’s right to these territories.

US President George W Bush made this commitment on 16 August, saying: “Georgia’s borders should command the same respect as every other nation’s. There’s no room for debate on this matter.”

This becomes a moral argument, with the Russians answering that after supporting Kosovo’s unilateral secession from Serbia, the West is guilty of “double standards” in the Caucasus.

Caught in the middle of these international wrangles are the current and former populations of both Abkhazia and South Ossetia – Abkhaz, Ossetians and other nationalities such as Armenians on the one hand, and the displaced Georgians on the other.

They often get along fine when they have a chance to engage in low-level meetings arranged by foreign organisations or across market stalls.

Now, unfortunately, they are being wrenched apart further than ever by conflict.

Thomas de Waal is Caucasus Editor at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in London.

August 17, 2008

Russian troops ‘start withdrawal’

Russian troops ‘start withdrawal’

Russian tank in Georgia (16 August 2008)

Moscow’s troops continue to operate deep inside the Caucasus republic

The Russian commander of front line forces in Georgia has told that a gradual withdrawal of Russian forces from Georgia is under way.

Maj Gen Vyacheslav Borisov said he had given the order for Russian soldiers to be replaced by peacekeepers.

Russian forces in position 35km (22 miles) from the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, on the road to Gori, close to South Ossetia.

Russia said it did not have a timetable for a full withdrawal from Gori.

Russia still controls almost all of the main arterial highway running east-west through Georgia, and the main towns along the route.

Russia’s claimed redeployment comes a day after Moscow signed a French-brokered peace plan to end the crisis.

Conflict between Georgia and Russia erupted on 7 August when Georgia launched an assault to retake its Russian-backed separatist province of South Ossetia.

It led to a massive counter-offensive by Russia, with Russia moving deeper into Georgian territory.

The US has demanded Russian troops pull out, but Moscow says it will only withdraw from Georgian territory once extra security measures are in place.

International attention

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who mediated the peace deal on behalf of the European Union, has warned Moscow that the ceasefire bars its forces from any “major urban area” in Georgia.

However, in a letter addressed to his Georgian counterpart, Mikhail Saakashvili, Mr Sarkozy said Russian troops did have the right to patrol “a few kilometres” beyond the conflict zone in South Ossetia.

But he underlined that clauses in the agreement permitting Russia to implement additional security measures “in no way limit or put in danger the freedom of movement and travel along the road and rail axes of Georgia” and could not be applied in any towns or cities.

PEACE PLAN
No more use of force
Stop all military actions for good
Free access to humanitarian aid
Georgian troops return to their places of permanent deployment
Russian troops to return to pre-conflict positions
International talks about future status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia

“I am particularly thinking of the city of Gori,” he said, which is the largest town close to the South Ossetia border.

There is a much reduced Russian military presence in the town compared with Saturday – though Russian soldiers still control the town’s key entry and exit points.

He says that even if Russian peacekeepers replace soldiers, local residents say it will not make much difference.

Meanwhile, US President George W Bush has reiterated his staunch support for ally Georgia.

The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, is due to hold talks with Mr Saakashvili in Tbilisi later on Sunday.

Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch has called on the Russian authorities to immediately take steps to end attacks by South Ossetian militias on ethnic Georgians in Gori and to allow vital humanitarian aid to reach vulnerable civilians.

“The Russian military has effective control of the Gori region, making it responsible for the security and well-being of all people living there,” said Rachel Denber, HRW’s Europe deputy director.

Russian control

The BBC’s Richard Galpin, who has spent the past two days traveling from the Black Sea port of Poti to Tbilisi, says Georgian forces seem to be surrendering control of the highway to the Russians.

Georgian refugee in Tbilisi (16 August 2008)

The UN puts the number of those displaced in the conflict at 118,000

In the western town of Senaki, our correspondent saw large numbers of Russian troops moving around on Saturday.

Further east in Zestafoni, he witnessed the panic of local residents as the word spread that the Russian army was approaching.

Cars sped away from roadblocks set up by the Georgian police, the drivers realizing their hopes of reaching Tbilisi had been dashed.

When the Russians arrived, they stayed only a few minutes after apparently being told there was no military base to take over.

Our correspondent says he then followed the Russian troops as they entered the central town of Khashuri, where they were given an escort by the local police.

He spoke to one Russian soldier who said he believed their final destination would be the Georgian capital, although the Kremlin flatly denied this. Another soldier said he expected to be in Georgia for a year.

Georgia has meanwhile accused pro-Russian Abkhaz separatist fighters of taking over 13 villages and a hydroelectric power plant. There has so far been no independent confirmation.

Security steps

Among the six points in the ceasefire deal, both sides agreed to pull back their forces to their positions before hostilities began on 7 August.

Diplomats have said that the UN Security Council is expected to vote later on Sunday on a draft resolution formalising the ceasefire agreement.

President Bush has said Mr Medvedev’s signing of the truce is “hopeful”, but that there can be no question that South Ossetia and Abkhazia will remain within Georgian borders, which are internationally recognised.

Reports suggest Mr Saakashvili only reluctantly agreed to another of the plan’s clauses – international talks about the future status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Map of region


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