News & Current Affairs

June 29, 2009

Ukraine wary of KGB terror files

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Ukraine wary of KGB terror files

KGB archives in Kiev

Ukraine’s SBU is declassifying the files selectively

Ukraine is opening up part of its old KGB archive, declassifying hundreds of thousands of documents spanning the entire Soviet period.

But the move to expose Soviet-era abuses is dividing Ukrainians, the BBC’s Gabriel Gatehouse reports from Kiev.

Deep in the bowels of Ukraine’s former KGB headquarters there is a deathly silence. Thousands of boxes, piled floor to ceiling, line the walls. Each box is carefully numbered and each one contains hundreds of documents: case notes on enemies of the former Soviet state.

Behind each number, there is a story of personal tragedy.

Volodymyr Viatrovych, the chief archivist, pulled out a brown cardboard folder stuffed full of documents: case number 4076. At the centre of the case is a letter, dated 1940 and addressed to “Comrade Stalin, the Kremlin, Moscow”.

A photo of Ivan Severin shot in the head (right) and the words: Liquidated. 3 April 1947

Ivan Severin was “liquidated” in 1947, his case notes state

“Dear Iosif Vissarionovich,” the letter starts. Nikolai Reva wanted Stalin to know the facts about the great famine of 1932-33, when millions died as a result of the Soviet policy of forced collectivisation.

Like many at the time, Mr Reva believed that Stalin was being kept in the dark, and that if only he knew what was happening, he would surely put a stop to it.

But his letter landed him in the Gulag. He was eventually rehabilitated – 25 years later.

Many met a harsher fate.

Leafing through one of many macabre photo albums, Mr Viatrovych pointed to a picture of Ivan Severin, shot in the head by the Soviet security services. Under the picture, in very neat handwriting, is written: “Liquidated, 3 April 1947”.

Criminal prosecution

Mr Viatrovych and his team are helping people to find out what happened to relatives and loved ones, often decades after they disappeared.

Volodymyr Viatrovych

Mr Viatrovych is helping the victims’ relatives to uncover the truth

But the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU), now in charge of the files, is declassifying them selectively.

They are concentrating on older cases, like that of the “liquidated” Mr Severin, who was part of a guerrilla campaign against Soviet rule in western Ukraine after World War II.

The authorities are preparing to mount a criminal prosecution in relation to the famine, or Holodomor, as it is known in Ukraine, though it is doubtful whether there is anyone still alive to stand in the dock.

But SBU head Valentyn Nalyvaichenko hopes this is just the beginning.

“As soon as Russia starts to open and uncover its archives, there will be more and more truth about the real history,” he said. At the moment, he added, Russia is not being especially co-operative.

But there is another obstacle to complete disclosure, and that is the Ukrainian Security Service itself. They are the ones deciding which files to declassify.

I put it to Mr Nalyvaichenko that the SBU is, after all, a successor to the KGB. He came out on the defensive.

“First and most important for me – we are not a successor to the KGB. That’s according to the law,” he said.

Could he state categorically that no-one working for the SBU today had formerly worked for the KGB?

He could not, admitting that 20% of his employees were former KGB officers. Some analysts in Ukraine believe that is a conservative figure.

It seems unlikely that SBU officers who worked for the Soviet KGB in the 1970s and 80s will be enthusiastic about declassifying documents that could incriminate them. Even if, as Mr Nalyvaichenko pointed out, the SBU is trying to recruit younger staff.

‘Not worth it’

But not all young Ukrainians have an exclusively negative view of their 20th-Century history.

To start a process of lustration after 18 years of independence would lead society to the brink of civil war
Dmytro Tabachnyk
Historian and opposition MP

In Kiev, there is a vast monument to the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany: a sprawling bronze relief of soldiers bearing guns and bayonets.

“We love our history,” said Svitlana, a young schoolteacher from the southern city of Odessa, on an outing with her class.

She was not keen for the children in her charge to be forced to examine the darker chapters of Soviet history.

“The past is the past,” she said. “The history of the famine, the killings, all the things Stalin did. I don’t think we should bring them up. There’s enough violence today as it is. If we start blaming each other… It’s just not worth it.”

‘Witch hunt’

The idea of airing the past as part of a healing process, and excluding members of the former regime from positions of authority – a process known as “lustration” – is being actively promoted by some in the Ukrainian administration.

Bykivnia

More than 200,000 bodies may be buried in Bykivnia, outside Kiev

But it is highly controversial. Dmytro Tabachnyk, a historian and opposition lawmaker, thinks the notion is absurd.

“It’s a witch hunt,” he said. “To start a process of lustration after 18 years of independence would lead society to the brink of civil war.”

In a forest just outside Kiev, the tree trunks are tied with thousands of white scarves.

The scarves are embroidered in the traditional Ukrainian way, with red-and-black geometric patterns, and each one symbolically represents a life lost to Soviet oppression.

Under Stalin, the Soviet secret police would bury executed political prisoners at Bykivnia. No-one knows exactly how many bodies lie buried in this wood, but some estimates put the figure at more than 200,000.

But, says Nico Lange, the German director of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Kiev, Ukrainians must stop blaming the Russians for their past, and start looking inward.

“Ukrainians have a tendency to perceive themselves as only victims of those historical processes,” he says.

“But coming to terms with the past really starts when you start uncovering also your own involvement: the oppressions by your own state, the offenders who are from your own people. If you do this work, this very painful work, the truth will finally set you free. And you will not invite new dictators to oppress you again.”

The Germans have experience of confronting their own past, both following World War II, and after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

But it will take a lot of united political will for such a process to get under way in Ukraine.

And it may be that, for the moment, there are still too many people alive and in positions of power, who were involved with the Soviet regime in one way or another.

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September 15, 2008

Insight: Who runs Russia?

Insight: Who runs Russia?

Vladimir Putin (L) and Dmitri Medvedev

Vladimir Putin (L) and Dmitri Medvedev must agree policy decisions

Getting to the bottom of the shadowy depths of Kremlin decision-making is tricky. Machiavellian power struggles, dark paranoia of security chiefs and long fingers of corruption can turn seemingly rational and transparent explanations inside out.

But even public signals are instructive, and in the wake of the Georgia crisis, Russia’s leadership is taking stock and has several messages for the West.

The first key question about Russia is – who is really in charge?

The standard answer is President Medvedev as Commander in Chief. He, and only he, ordered Russian troops across the border to hit back when Georgia attacked on South Ossetia.

But presidential power is now the tip of an iceberg. What murky currents swirl beneath the surface is less clear.

Dmitry Medvedev says he was caught unawares and admits his relative inexperience.

“I was on holiday on the Volga when the defence minister called,” he said at a conference of the so-called ‘Valdai Club’ of foreign academics and journalists who specialize in Russia.

“I’ll never forget that night, knowing the consequences there would be when I gave the order to return fire… especially when I’d only been president for 95 days,” he said.

But what about Russia’s ex-president, now his prime minister, who was also at the conference?

“However much authority I have, whoever I may be talking to, none of the troops or tanks would have moved an inch until President Medvedev’s order,” was Vladimir Putin’s attempt to deny his own importance when we asked about his role, thereby indicating that his clout and involvement were considerable.

Bridget Kendall
1998 to present: BBC diplomatic correspondent
1994-98: Washington correspondent
1989-94: Moscow correspondent

What is more, at the outset of the crisis, when Mr Putin was in Beijing for the opening of the Olympic Games, he was already thinking about Russia moving swiftly to recognize the two enclaves at the heart of the crisis.

He had taken the time, he told us, to inform the Chinese leadership that Russia would understand if Beijing chose not to react.

Double act

It begs the question – who is really driving policy, the president or the prime minister?

The choreography and timing of our audiences with both were instructive.

A pair of three-hour meetings, two elegant luncheon settings, two declarative statements for Russian TV cameras at the start, and even two carefully informal blue suits with matching ties.

All to signal, perhaps, that their status is equal – a dual leadership exercising power in tandem.

I never thought I’d need to use harsh rhetoric when I began this job. But there are some moments as president when you are left with no choice
Russian President, Dmitri Medvedev

Indeed one senior government official made a point of emphasizing the duality, constantly referring to them in the same breath.

Policy decisions had to be cleared with both, he said. And what was wrong with that? A double act surely strengthened, not muddled governance, requiring a green light from two instead of one.

We met Mr Putin first. Almost the entire discussion was devoted to foreign policy.

He was burning to give his point of view. He seemed supremely confident, engaged and in charge. His anger at the way he felt Russia had been treated in recent years blazed through, as though it was his own personal animosity which is now firing and fuelling current policy.

It was hard to remember he was no longer president.

Economic policy, supposedly at the heart of his new job as prime minister, came up sporadically and he admitted he is still mastering his new brief.

When he did comment directly on Dmitry Medvedev, the impression he left was curious.

Mr Putin seemed to want to play up the differences between them, as though suggesting a “good cop, bad cop” routine.

He described himself as “conservative” and with an uncharacteristic flash of self-deprecation admitted his penchant for blunt speaking was sometimes a liability.

Whereas he described Dmitry Medvedev as bright, young and highly educated, with modern and – he stressed this twice – liberal views.

“He’s a good lad,” said Mr Putin a touch condescendingly, as though recommending his young protege to a would-be employer for a new job.

The aim, it seemed, was to send a signal to the West that Dmitry Medvedev is indeed more flexible and reformist than Putin himself – and was forced to act tough because the crisis left him no option.

Moral high ground

So the US and its allies should understand they had made a big mistake by allowing this conflict to happen – and they would make an even bigger mistake unless they made the compromises Russia now wants.

When we met Dmitry Medvedev he underscored the point.

“I never thought I’d need to use harsh rhetoric when I began this job. But there are some moments as president when you are left with no choice,” he said.

“I very much don’t want the Caucasus crisis to destroy Russian co-operation with Europe and the United States,” he elaborated, and suggested he felt frustrated at his new role of “President of War”.

He’s a good politician, I think I have a better opinion of George than most Americans
Vladimir Putin on George W Bush

“A whole month has been lost on this war… I’d rather have been doing other things,” he said. “Yesterday when I met the defence and finance ministers, instead of talking about car and tractor production, we had to discuss where to deploy the Russian army. Priorities have had to change.”

So what, then, at this juncture does Russia want from the West?

The first message is that the Russian government is in no mood to compromise.

It insists it occupies the moral high ground in this crisis and sees no reason to give way.

This was tantamount to Russia’s 9/11, President Dmitry Medvedev declared to us, a defining moment in national policy and in relations with the outside world.

That conviction was echoed from top to bottom in our discussions with government officials, mainstream academics and journalists, all of them insisting Russia had no choice but to respond militarily and take South Ossetia and Abkhazia under its wing.

Any suspicion that Russia cunningly laid a trap that Georgia rashly walked into was dismissed as an outrageous lie.

The idea that by deploying troops deep inside Georgia and unilaterally recognising the two disputed enclaves’ independence Russia had gone too far was rejected out of hand.

The suggestion that by invading Georgian territory, and asserting its right to redraw the map, Russia made itself look like a bully, was also thrown out.

Instead President Saakashvili was blamed for triggering the conflict.

The United States had nudged him into it and rashly armed and trained his men while Europeans had looked the other way.

Any Western criticism to the contrary was hypocritical, given interventions in Kosovo and Iraq, and yet another example of anti-Russian hysteria and unfair stereotyping, based on prejudices left over from the Cold War.

Red line

Curiously both Mr Putin and President Medvedev were carefully respectful when it came to President Bush.

“He’s a good politician, I think I have a better opinion of George than most Americans,” said Mr Putin, at the same time complaining that he had twice tried to get the US president to intervene.

Instead it was Vice-President Cheney and the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, with their Soviet expertise, who were targeted as villains, suspected of fueling anti-Russian sentiment in the US administration and egging Georgia on.

“We need to get rid of stereotypes. The US president has too many Sovietologists in his entourage,” observed Dmitry Medvedev caustically.

A Russian tank crosses a main route in Georgia

Russia is keen to avoid accusations of annexing Georgian territory

The second message that came through clearly was that Russia’s “red line” – any move to extend Nato to Russia’s borders by seeking to incorporate Georgia or Ukraine – still stands.

What Russia really wants is a new discussion on European security arrangements to replace Nato with something else entirely.

But short of that, attempts by the United States or Nato to rearm Georgia or to extend formal invitations to either Georgia or Ukraine to join the alliance seem likely to prompt a furious Russian response.

“Russia has zones that are part of its interests. For the West to deny it is pointless and even dangerous,” said President Medvedev.

“It’s unjust, it’s humiliating, and we’ve had enough. It’s something we are no longer prepared to endure,” he said. “You have a very clear choice here. Let there be no doubt about it.”

What exactly Russia would do to try to prevent this further Nato enlargement was left unclear.

“We’ll do all we can to make sure it doesn’t happen,” said Mr Putin carefully, talking about Ukraine.

Although on Georgia he noted Russian tanks had been within 15 kilometres of Tbilisi and could have taken the capital in four hours.

Economic concerns

So the hints of a threat, but not exactly – and that is interesting. Because the third message that came through was that Russia would like to think a major East-West confrontation can still be avoided.

There may well be powerful forces in Russia’s military and security elite, ultra nationalists who would like to see their country retreat from global integration and rely once more on internal resources – economic and military – as in Soviet days, to reclaim influence geographically and show the outside world Russia’s might can no longer be ignored.

Roubles being sorted at the Goznak mint in Moscow

Russia’s stock market value has fallen by 50% since May this year

But diplomatic and economic isolation does not seem to be what the Kremlin leadership currently wants to embrace.

The haste with which both Mr Putin and Mr Medvedev shrugged off the notion that Russia might have to pay a price for this crisis was telling.

They denied that the loss of nearly 50% of Russia’s stock market value from its all time high in May had much to do with the Georgia crisis.

A far more likely cause, they argued – with some justification, given what is happening on Wall Street – was the impact of global financial instability.

In comparison to many other countries, they insisted, Russia’s economy was in good shape – signs of capital flight were temporary. Foreign investors would be back. Russia’s energy resources were needed by everyone and it had weathered economic storms before.

The fact only Nicaragua had joined Russia in recognising Abkhazia and South Ossetia was also dismissed as unimportant, even if the glaring lack of overt diplomatic support for Russia’s actions appears to be a sensitive point.

When the leader of South Ossetia told us he intended to follow up independence by amalgamating his tiny republic with North Ossetia and becoming part of the Russian Federation, he was hurriedly slapped down. Within hours he had issued a retraction.

Outright annexation by Russia of what is, after all, legally speaking Georgian territory is an accusation Moscow seems anxious to avoid.

Yes, Russia wants to claim that the ball is now firmly in the court of the US and its allies – that it is up to them, not Russia, to decide how this geopolitical crisis plays out.

But behind all the moral outrage, I felt there was also a nervousness, a worry that if Russia’s bluff is called and further tensions with the West ensue, it might force a stand-off from which neither side could back down.

“There is a chill in the air and a loss of trust,” said Dmitry Medvedev, “but I don’t think this is a corner turn that will lead to a long confrontation. This is not what we want. And it’s not what you want either.”

September 3, 2008

Russia praises EU’s approach

Russia praises EU’s approach

Lavrov, left, said Russia did not discriminate against Turkey in trade relations [AFP]

Russia has praised the European Union for taking a “responsible approach” to its conflict with Georgia by declining to impose sanctions on Moscow.

But Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president, said the EU had failed to understand Moscow’s reasons for moving into Georgia and recognising the separitist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

“In my view, the outcome is double-edged,” Medvedev said at his summer residence on the Black Sea.

“This is sad, but not fatal because things change in this world. Another situation, in my opinion, is more positive.

“Despite certain divisions among the EU states on the issue, a reasonable, realistic point of view prevailed because some of the states were calling for some mythical sanctions.”

He later said that he does not consider Mikhail Saakashvili to be Georgia’s president, in an interview with a Russian television channel.

“For us, the present Georgian regime has collapsed. President Saakashvili no longer exists in our eyes. He is a political corpse,” Medvedev said.

EU leaders met in Brussels on Monday to discuss Russia and Georgia and threatened to postpone talks with Moscow on a new partnership pact if it did not withdraw its troops to pre-conflict positions in Georgia by mid-September.

The leaders were unable to reach a consensus on the sanctions that some members, including Britain and the Baltic states, had been pushing for, highlighting the bloc’s divisions over how best to deal with its largest energy supplier.

Cheney visit

Ahead of a visit by Dick Cheney, the US vice president, to US allies in the region, a Kremlin aide said he expected Washington would also opt against imposing sanctions.

Cheney, due to leave on Tuesday for Azerbaijan, Georgia and Ukraine, has been an outspoken critic of Russia, saying last month its push into Georgia could “not go unanswered”.

Sergei Prikhodko, chief foreign policy advisor to Medvedev, told reporters:”We hope that a positive agenda in relations with the United States will prevail.”

Cheney has been an outspoken critic of Russia since the war broke out [EPA]

The statements contained none of the strident remarks made by Kremlin officials in the run-up to the EU summit.

It also appeared designed to signal Moscow’s readiness to take a conciliatory stance with western countries if they also avoid confrontation.

Russia sent its forces against its southern neighbour in a brief war last month after Georgia tried to recapture by force its pro-Moscow, separatist region of South Ossetia.

It has drawn Western condemnation by pushing beyond the disputed area, bombing and deploying troops deep inside Georgia proper and recognising the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Russia said it was forced to intervene to prevent what it has called a genocide of the separatist regions by Tbilisi, and says it is honouring a French-brokered ceasefire deal.

The former Soviet republic of Georgia is strategically important to the West because it hosts oil and gas pipelines that bypass Russia.

September 1, 2008

Kremlin critic shot in Ingushetia

Kremlin critic shot in Ingushetia

Magomed Yevloyev (photo from Russian news website lenta.ru)

Yevloyev’s website is said to be one of the most visited for Ingush news

The owner of an internet site critical of the Russian authorities in the volatile region of Ingushetia has been shot dead in police custody.

Magomed Yevloyev, owner of the ingushetiya.ru site, was a vocal critic of the region’s administration.

The Russian prosecutor’s office said an investigation into the death had been launched, Russia media report.

A post on Yevloyev’s site says he was detained by police after landing at the airport of the main town, Nazran.

The website owner was taken to hospital but died from his injuries.

Reports quoting local police said Yevloyev had tried to seize a policeman’s gun when he was being led to a vehicle. A shot was fired and Yevloyev was injured in the head.

Fierce critic

Yevloyev was a thorn in the side of Ingush President Murat Zyazikov, a former KGB general.

Ingushetia map

His website reported on alleged Russian security force brutality in Ingushetia, an impoverished province of some half a million people, mostly Muslims, which is now more turbulent than neighboring Chechnya.

President Zyazikov had been on the same flight as Yevloyev.

Ingushetia borders Chechnya and has suffered from overflowing unrest.

There is a low-level insurgency, with regular small-scale ambushes against police and soldiers.

In June 2008, the Human Rights Watch group accused Russian security forces there of carrying out widespread human rights abuses.

HRW said it had documented dozens of arbitrary detentions, disappearances, acts of torture and extra-judicial executions.

August 30, 2008

Russia moves to calm Georgia row

Russia moves to calm Georgia row

Russian troops in Tskhinvali, 29/08

Russian troops repelled Georgian forces from the breakaway regions

Russia has taken a series of diplomatic steps in an apparent effort to ease tensions with the West over this month’s conflict in Georgia.

President Dmitry Medvedev told UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown Moscow wanted more monitors from Europe’s security body in Georgia, the Kremlin said.

Separately, Russian and German foreign ministers agreed to seek to calm tensions over the crisis, Moscow said.

The issue is set to dominate the agenda of an EU meeting on Monday.

SOUTH OSSETIA & ABKHAZIA
BBC map
South Ossetia
Population: About 70,000 (before recent conflict)
Capital: Tskhinvali
President: Eduard Kokoity
Abkhazia
Population: About 250,000 (2003)
Capital: Sukhumi
President: Sergei Bagapsh

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said earlier this week that the bloc was considering sanctions “and many other means” against Russia over the crisis.

But he said he hoped the matter would “be solved by negotiation”.

Moscow’s military action in Georgia and its subsequent recognition of independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia – Georgia’s two rebel regions – have angered the West.

Moscow has defended its actions, saying they prevented a “genocide” in South Ossetia.

However, after the inflammatory rhetoric Russia now appears to have decided it is time for a bit of diplomacy, the BBC’s Rupert Wingfield-Hayes in Moscow says.

‘Non-existent threats’

During Saturday’s telephone conversation with Mr Brown, President Medvedev said Russia was “in favor of the deployment of additional OSCE [Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe] monitors in the security zone” in Georgia, the Kremlin statement said.

It said observers in the security zone would provide “impartial monitoring” of Tbilisi’s actions.

Earlier this month, the OSCE decided to increase the number of its military observers by up 100 in Georgia.

Mr Medvedev also said that Russia recognised Georgia’s regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia because of Tbilisi’s aggression.

He said that the Georgian move “fundamentally altered the conditions in which, during 17 years, attempts were made to settle the relations between South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Georgia,” the statement said.

In a separate development, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov spoke to his German counterpart, Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

They both “agreed on the need to put an end to attempts to use the situation surrounding Georgia… to raise tensions in Europe by speculating on non-existent threats concerning other post-Soviet countries,” a Russian foreign ministry statement said.

Ties cut

The conflict in the region began on 7 August when Georgia tried to retake South Ossetia by force after a series of lower-level clashes.

Russia launched a counter-attack and the Georgian troops were ejected from both South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russian troops continued their operation, advancing deep inside Georgia’s territory.

An EU-brokered ceasefire brought a formal end to the conflict five days later, although each side has accused the other of breaking the agreement.

Russia has since withdrawn the bulk of its force and says the troops left behind are serving as peacekeepers.

Georgia has described them as an occupation force, announcing that it is cutting diplomatic relations with Moscow.

August 29, 2008

Russia hits back at G7 criticism

Russia hits back at G7 criticism

Georgians mourn soldiers killed in the conflict, 28/08

Georgians have been burying soldiers killed in the conflict

Criticism by the G7 group of nations of Russia’s actions in Georgia is biased and groundless, Russian officials have said.

The G7 was trying to justify Georgian aggression towards the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russia’s Foreign Ministry said.

The G7 had accused Russia of breaking international law by recognising the two provinces as independent.

Russia and Georgia fought a brief war earlier this month over the issue.

The ministry accused the G7 of making “baseless assertions about Russia undermining Georgia’s territorial integrity”.

SOUTH OSSETIA & ABKHAZIA
BBC map
South Ossetia
Population: About 70,000 (before recent conflict)
Capital: Tskhinvali
President: Eduard Kokoity
Abkhazia
Population: About 250,000 (2003)
Capital: Sukhumi
President: Sergei Bagapsh

“This step is biased and is aimed at justifying the aggressive actions of Georgia,” the ministry said.

The new statement comes a day after Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin stoked up the war of words with the US.

He told CNN there was a “suspicion” that the Georgian conflict was created by someone in the US in the hope of benefiting one of the candidates in the presidential elections.

The White House dismissed Mr Putin’s assertions as “not rational”.

Meanwhile, officials in the Moscow-backed South Ossetian government have been quoted as saying Russia intends to absorb the breakaway province within “several years”.

Parliamentary speaker Znaur Gassiyev said the move had been agreed at high-level talks in Moscow earlier this week, the Associated Press reported.

The Kremlin has not yet commented on the claims.

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?

Send in your comments

August 12, 2008

Russia ‘ends Georgia operation’

Russia ‘ends Georgia operation’

Courtesy BBC

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev

Mr Medvedev made his announcement before meeting the French president

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has ordered an end to military operations against Georgia, the Kremlin says.

He told officials he had taken the decision to end the campaign after restoring security for civilians and peacekeepers in South Ossetia.

However, Russia has been highly critical of Georgia’s leadership, and there were no signs of imminent talks.

Before the announcement, there were fresh reports of Russian warplanes bombing the Georgian town of Gori.

Witnesses told  that several people were killed when a bomb hit a hospital in the town, which is 10 miles (15km) from the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali.

A reporter for Reuters news agency said several bombs exploded in front of his vehicle, while a Reuters photographer spoke of seeing dead and injured people lying in the streets.

Officials in the Netherlands, meanwhile, confirmed that a Dutch TV cameraman was among those killed in Gori and a journalist was wounded.

And in Georgia’s other breakaway region, Abkhazia, separatist rebels continued an offensive against Georgian troops in the Kodori Gorge region – the only area of Abkhazia still under Georgian military control.

‘Safety restored’

News of Mr Medvedev’s decision emerged as French President Nicolas Sarkozy arrived in Moscow expecting to press Russia on the need for a ceasefire.

According to a statement, Mr Medvedev told his defence minister and chief of staff that “the goal has been attained”.

Should centres of resistance or other aggressive attempts arise, you must take the decision to destroy them
Dmitry Medvedev
Russian president

I’ve decided to finish the operation to force the Georgian authorities to peace. The safety of our peacekeeping forces and civilian population has been restored.

“The aggressor has been punished, having sustained considerable losses. Its armed forces have been disorganised,” he added.

There is no sign yet that Russia is willing to engage in talks with the government in Tbilisi.

Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, has insisted that Georgia must sign a legally binding document on the non-use of force.

And Mr Medvedev warned that Russia would not tolerate any further Georgian military activity in South Ossetia, saying: “Should centres of resistance or other aggressive attempts arise, you must take the decision to destroy them.”

The BBC’s Gabriel Gatehouse, near Gori, reported seeing sporadic artillery fire around the town right up until shortly before the Russian announcement.

Our correspondent said there was no sign of Russian troops south of Gori, but said there were a number of Georgian military vehicles abandoned or burnt on the road outside the town.

Map of region


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