News & Current Affairs

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.

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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 24, 2008

US warship docks in Georgia port

US warship docks in Georgia port

USS McFaul passing through Bosphorus Strait heading for Georgia 22 August

The USS McFaul is the first of three ships to arrive in Georgia

A  has arrived in the Georgian port of Batumi carrying the first delivery of aid supplies by sea.

Russian forces are still in control of the military port of Poti, to the north of Batumi, after withdrawing most of its combat troops from the country.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who brokered the ceasefire, has urged Moscow to pull out those forces too.

Meanwhile, a train carrying fuel has exploded after hitting a mine near Gori, Georgia’s interior ministry said.

A huge plume of black smoke could be seen across the region, the AFP news agency reported.

Interior ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili said there had been several explosions near an abandoned Georgian military base where the Russian troops, on leaving Gori, had left a stockpile of munitions taken from the Georgian army.

“Our teams can’t even get close to the area because it is in flames and the munitions are continuously exploding,” he said.

The spokesman suggested the stockpile or the train track could have been mined by the Russian forces. There have been no details about possible casualties.

Georgian authorities had been hoping to help thousands of refugees return to Gori on Sunday having carried out a mine-sweeping operation in the town.

Russia’s four-day war with Georgia erupted after Tbilisi tried to retake its province of South Ossetia – which broke away in 1992 and was supported by Moscow – in a surprise offensive on 7 August. The offensive followed a series of clashes between Georgian and South Ossetian forces.

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 but Russian peacekeepers may take unspecified “additional security measures”
International talks about security in South Ossetia and Abkhazia

Crisis day-by-day

Eyewitness: Russian withdrawal

Russia’s game plan

The conflict left hundreds of people dead and created tens of thousands of refugees. Many have been returning to their damaged or destroyed homes since the Russian withdrawal.

The UN’s refugee agency UNHCR reported this week that, according to Russian estimates, more than 30,000 people from South Ossetia had fled to North Ossetia. Another 128,000 were estimated to have been displaced within Georgia.

International aid agencies are working on the ground and the US has already delivered some aid by military cargo plane.

The destroyer USS McFaul is reported to be carrying supplies such as blankets, hygiene kits and baby food.

Two more US ships are due to dock later this week.

The BBC’s Gabriel Gatehouse, in Tbilisi, said that apart from delivering aid, the arrival of US naval personnel is undoubtedly intended to send a signal to the Russians – that America is serious about its support for Georgia.

But, he adds, the prospect of US and Russian armed forces actually meeting on Georgian soil is one that both sides seem keen to avoid.

Batumi is not a natural harbour for a naval vessel the size of the USS McFaul to dock but Russian forces have been fortifying their positions at the key port of Poti, further up the coast.

On Saturday, Mr Sarkozy, welcomed the withdrawal of Russian forces so far, but urged Moscow to pull its troops back from Poti and Senaki, which is the site of Georgia’s main air base.

Russia says it has a duty and a right to keep its forces in a buffer zone around the breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia – though it acknowledges that Poti falls well outside that zone.

Georgia map

August 23, 2008

Russia’s neighbours go their own way

Russia’s neighbours go their own way

It is easy to assume that escalating tensions between Russia and the West could mean an end to the blurry fudges of the post-Cold War years and a recasting of East-West relations into black and white antagonism, with two opposing camps, each surrounded by its own sphere of influence.

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili is flanked (right) by Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko in Tbilisi on 12 August

Ukraine’s leader (R) went to Tbilisi to back President Saakashvili

But look at how the Georgia crisis is being received around Russia’s edges. The response is often evasive, and sometimes downright surprising.

Among the countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), which 20 years ago were constituent parts of the USSR whose loyalty to Moscow was automatic, Russia has won remarkably few endorsements. Some Central Asian states have sent in aid to South Ossetia. But on the whole the response has been decidedly muted.

To be fair, Georgia too has drawn criticism. But gone are the days when Moscow could rely on satellite states to speak up for it. For Russia’s leaders to declare that Russia was and always will be the “guarantor of stability” in the Caucasus is now a risky statement that could repel as well as draw regional backing.

Its neighbours are now independent countries whose priority is not to please the Kremlin but turn any crisis to their advantage, or worry about how it might adversely affect them.

Economic interests first

Next door to Georgia in the Caucasus, Azerbaijan’s top concern is to keep the pipeline that runs from Baku through Georgian territory to Turkey free from threat of attack.

But President Ilham Aliyev is also apparently wary of aggravating Russia. He has now publically backed Georgia’s territorial integrity, but steered clear of more vigorous support of Tbilisi.

Elderly refugees from South Ossetia sit in a refugee camp in North Ossetia, Russia,  on 10 August

Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have donated aid for Ossetian refugees

Landlocked Turkmenistan too, with its immense gas fields on the other side of the Caspian Sea, has a lively interest in making sure the Baku pipeline is not disrupted and Georgia remains a stable reliable partner.

It competes as well as collaborates with Russia as an energy supplier. It does not want one of its main outlets threatened.

And beleaguered Armenia, at the southern tip of the Caucasus, has even more reason to be alarmed. Any prolonged conflict in Georgia would disrupt all its supply routes.

Further west and closer to Europe in the “former Soviet space”, there has been an even more marked shift in governmental responses.

Tiny impoverished Moldova, on the border between Romania and Ukraine, has its own “frozen conflict” unsolved from Soviet days: the Russian-supported and heavily armed enclave of Trans-Dniester.

So this week Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin pointedly turned to the European Union for help in finding a peaceful way out of that stand-off.

Ukrainian ambivalence

In Ukraine, President Viktor Yushchenko from the very start saw Russia’s military intervention in Georgia as an implied threat. Ukraine too is a Nato aspirant, and Russia has frequently warned it that Nato membership is something it will not tolerate.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko (image from 14 July)

Yulia Tymoshenko is likely to run in the next election

So President Yushchenko was swift to define himself as the champion of Ukraine’s right to join Nato and defy Russian pressure.

Not only did he fly to Tbilisi to offer moral support, he issued a presidential decree to remind Russia that its Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol in the Crimea does, after all, use a Ukrainian port.

In future, he demanded, Russia must give 72 hours’ notice before moving its vessels and he once again raised the prospect that Ukraine might not renew its lease for the port when it expires in 2017.

But how Russia’s relations with Ukraine might unwind is not straightforward.

The fear has certainly been expressed in Kiev that a restive pro-Russian population in the Crimea might provide a pretext for another Russian military intervention. Russian nationalists who see the Crimea as historically Russian territory would seize any pretext to realise their ambitions, goes the argument.

What is certainly true is that a clash between Moscow and Kiev over the Crimea would probably cleave Ukraine in half and open up a dangerous conflict with widespread repercussions. But a more likely scenario is less dramatic.

Russia has only to wait for a change in Ukrainian politics. President Yushchenko may be a prominent leader but his long term-durability is not guaranteed. Opinion polls put his popularity at under 10%.

With presidential elections due in 18 months, the Kremlin may well reckon it can look for a more reliable partner in his likely opponent and current Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, who has been remarkably quiet on the Georgia crisis.

Mixed signals from Minsk

But perhaps the most interesting response has come from Belarus and its President, Alexander Lukashenko, sometimes described as “Europe’s last dictator”.

Belarussian police arrest demonstrators outside the Russian embassy on 11 August

Belarussian police pounced on anti-Russian protestors during the conflict

Only a few years ago Russia was such a close ally, there was talk of the two countries merging, so one might have expected him to back Russia’s action in the Caucasus.

But Belarus has had a series of bad-tempered rows with Russia over energy supplies and has recently shown more interest in improving Western contacts.

The initial response from Minsk to Russia’s intervention in Georgia was decidedly ambivalent – so much so, that the Russian ambassador there even publicly expressed his displeasure.

President Lukashenko then travelled to Sochi to reassure President Medvedev that Moscow’s military operation had been conducted “calmly, wisely and beautifully”.

But he took steps to clear the way for better relations with the US and Europe.

In the last few days the final three political prisoners in Belarus have been suddenly released – the beneficiaries, it seems, of an unexpected presidential pardon.

“It’s very significant,” said Britain’s Ambassador to Minsk, Nigel Gould Davies. “For the first time in a decade Belarus does not have any political prisoners.”

And watch this space. Whether Belarus is really serious about improving its relations with the West will be tested in September, when it holds parliamentary elections.

Russia accused of abusing truce

Russia accused of abusing truce

A Russian soldier, his helmet marked "Peacekeeping Forces", watches combat troops pull out of Georgia on 22 August

Shoulder and helmet badges mark out Russia’s peacekeepers

The US and France have accused Russia of failing to comply with the terms of its ceasefire with Georgia by creating buffer zones and checkpoints.

Russia announced the full withdrawal of combat forces from Georgia proper on Friday but insisted hundreds of other troops could stay under the ceasefire.

France brokered the ceasefire to end fighting over Georgia’s pro-Russian breakaway province of South Ossetia.

Its terms are vague about the extent of any buffer zones, analysts say.

A White House spokesman, Gordon Johndroe, said the checkpoints and buffer zones set up by Russia were not part of the ceasefire agreement.

A spokesman for the French foreign ministry, Eric Chevalier, said a United Nations Security Council resolution was needed to clarify exactly what the ceasefire agreement covers.

The Russian military say they intend to maintain a peacekeeping presence in Georgia, controlling buffer zones around both South Ossetia and the other breakaway province, Abkhazia.

The zones include sections of the main highway from the capital Tbilisi to the Black Sea as well as Georgia’s main airbase at Senaki.

‘Clearly stated’

US President George W Bush and his French counterpart Nicolas Sarkozy agreed in a telephone conversation on Friday that Russia was “not in compliance [with the ceasefire] and that Russia needs to come into compliance now”, Mr Johndroe said.

“Compliance means compliance with that plan,” he added.

“We haven’t seen that yet. It’s my understanding that they have not completely withdrawn from areas considered undisputed territory, and they need to do that.”

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

“Establishing checkpoints, buffer zones, are definitely not part of the agreement,” US state department spokesman Robert Wood added.

The French spokesman told that the ceasefire had stipulated that Russia’s forces “should go back to the situation before the hostilities started”.

“The idea is that, yes, for a temporary period some Russian peace forces could stay on… next to the [border] line of Ossetia but it’s temporary, it should be for patrolling and it should be until we have an international mechanism,” Mr Chevalier said.

“It was clearly stated that this presence first has to be through patrolling, no fixed presence and, second, should not have an effect on the freedom of movement on roads and trains in this place.”

The UN Security Council split this week over a resolution, with rival drafts submitted by Moscow, and the US and its allies.

Western diplomats fear that Moscow is determined to define the parameters of the interim security arrangements on its own terms.

Part of the problem, he adds, is the extraordinary vagueness of the EU-brokered ceasefire deal, which speaks only of “additional security measures” in “the immediate proximity of South Ossetia” – proximity being defined as a distance of “several kilometers”.

‘Zone of responsibility’

Moscow intends to maintain a peacekeeping presence of nearly 2,600 troops in the buffer zones for the foreseeable future, backed by armoured cars and helicopters.

Of these, 2,142 will be deployed along Abkhazia’s de facto border and 452 on the de facto border of South Ossetia, the Russian military said.

Russia’s so-called “zone of responsibility” also includes Georgia’s main airbase at Senaki, some 40km (25 miles) from the boundary with Abkhazia, which sits astride vital road and rail links to the Black Sea port of Poti.

Correspondents on the ground say they have seen what appears to be a significant Russian troop movement out of Georgia.

Correspondents in Igoeti – just 35km (21 miles) from the capital, Tbilisi – says he saw Russian troops leave the town, joining a column of hundreds of armoured vehicles on the road towards South Ossetia.

Our correspondent says buses of Georgian police are arriving in Igoeti to take control after Russian troops removed their roadblocks and pulled out.

But another correspondent in the nearby town of Korvaleti says Georgian police vehicles there are still being blocked at checkpoints.

Russia’s four-day war with Georgia began after Tbilisi tried to retake South Ossetia – which broke away in 1992 – in a surprise offensive on 7 August.

Georgia map


Are you in Georgia? How is your community affected by the conflict? Can normal life ever be resumed?

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August 22, 2008

Russia to keep posts in Georgia

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Russia to keep posts in Georgia

A senior Russian general says Moscow intends to maintain a military presence of more than 2,000 troops in Georgia.

Gen Anatoly Nogovitsyn said Russian forces would be stationed around the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the focus of recent conflict.

Correspondents on the ground say they have seen what appears to be a significant troop movement from Georgian positions to South Ossetia.

Georgia has said it will not accept any “annexation” of its land by Russia.

Russia’s land forces commander earlier said that all Russian combat troops would be moved back from Georgia proper to South Ossetia by the weekend and that most of the soldiers sent to the region as reinforcements would return to Russia within 10 days.

Correspondent says he has witnessed hundreds of Russian armored vehicles, including tanks and armored personnel carriers, withdrawing from the town of Igoeti, about 35km (21 miles) from the Georgian capital, Tbilisi.

Our correspondent says buses of Georgian police are arriving to take control after Russian troops removed their road block and pulled out.

There are also reports of a pull-back from the Georgian flashpoint town of Gori to South Ossetia.

‘Snail’s pace’

At a briefing in Moscow, the deputy chief of the Russian military general staff, Gen Nogovitsyn, said the withdrawal of all combat troops was going according to plan.

“The troop pull-back has been started at a rate to make sure that the Russian troops be within the zone of responsibility of the Russian peacekeeping contingent by the end of 22 August,” he said.

“We are not going to correct this plan or increase the speed of withdrawal.”

Gen Nogovitsyn said Russian troops were setting up checkpoints on the borders of South Ossetia and Abkhazia with Georgia.

The so-called zone of responsibility also includes Georgia’s main airbase at Senaki, and cuts across Georgia’s main east-west highway, which stretches from Tbilisi to the Black Sea.

Russian officials say the zone was established in principle in an agreement between Russia and Georgia which pre-dates this month’s conflict, but was never put into force.

Georgian State Minister for Reintegration Temur Iakobashvili told Reuters that such a zone was “a violation of any 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

Russia’s four-day war with Georgia began after Tbilisi tried to retake the Moscow-backed breakaway province of South Ossetia on 7 August, following days of clashes with separatists.

The fighting ended with an EU-brokered ceasefire deal, and a promise by Moscow to pull back its forces by 22 August.

But the commander of US forces in Europe, Gen John Craddock, said Russia was taking too long to pull back, saying “if they are moving, it is at a snail’s pace”.

The first of the Russian Black Sea Fleet warships, which have been deployed off the west coast of Georgia’s province of Abkhazia, has returned to its base at Sevastopol in Ukraine.

Ukraine’s President Viktor Yushchenko criticised Russia’s use of ships from the base leased to Moscow, saying there was a danger of his country being passively drawn into an international conflict against its will. Protesters reportedly greeted the ship’s return on Friday.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, has arrived in the capital of South Ossetia, Tskhinvali, to assess the humanitarian situation there.

Thousands of civilians are reported to be in urgent need of relief supplies.

The UN estimates that nearly 160,000 people have been displaced across the whole of Georgia since the conflict began.

The Georgian government is seeking $1-2bn (£0.5-1bn) in aid to repair and develop infrastructure following the conflict with Russia, the head of the US government aid agency, USAid, said. The World Bank has also announced that it is sending a team of experts to the country to assess its reconstruction needs.

‘War with Nato’

Diplomatic efforts at the UN have reached deadlock over rival resolutions on the crisis from France and Russia.

A woman walks down a destroyed main street in Tskhinvali, South Ossetia

Thousands of civilians are reported to be in urgent need of relief supplies

Russia has reiterated its opposition to a rival French text, which reaffirms Georgia’s territorial integrity.

Georgia’s President Mikhail Saakashvili told the BBC he would never accept what he called Russia’s “annexation of its territory”.

He warned that Russia’s involvement in South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Georgia were intended to send a strong message to the West.

“If Nato fails now to come up with a united response, nobody’s safe, even if they are in Nato already,” he said.

“It’s all about reconsidering the role of Nato, the role of international law and borders in this part of the world. This is no longer about Georgia anymore.

“Russia decided to win war with Nato without firing a single shot at it.”

A Nato spokeswoman says Russia’s defence ministry has decided to halt all military co-operation with the bloc to protest at what Moscow calls the alliance’s biased, pro-Georgian view of the conflict.

The move by Moscow followed a Nato statement that there would be no “business as usual” with Moscow unless its troops pulled out of Georgia.

Georgia map

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 19, 2008

Nato holds Georgia crisis summit

Nato holds Georgia crisis summit

Russian soldiers near Gori, Georgia, on 18 August 2008

Moscow insists that its troops have begun pulling back, as promised

Nato foreign ministers are gathering in Brussels for an emergency summit to discuss how the alliance should respond to Russia’s military action in Georgia.

On the eve of the meeting, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the West must deprive Russia of any strategic victory from its assault on Georgia.

But major differences remain among Nato members as to how far they should go in seeking to punish Russia, analysts say.

Tbilisi says Russia is not pulling out, as pledged, but Moscow denies it.

The conflict broke out on 7 August when Georgia launched an assault to wrest back control of the Moscow-backed breakaway region of South Ossetia, triggering a counter-offensive by Russian troops who advanced beyond South Ossetia into Georgia’s heartland.

A ceasefire was signed at the weekend, with Moscow pledging to begin pulling back its troops on Monday, but correspondents say there has so far been little sign of any large-scale force withdrawal.

We hope the decisions by Nato will be balanced and that responsible forces in the West will give up the total cynicism that has been so evident [which] is pushing us back to the Cold War era
Dmitry Rogozin
Russia’s ambassador to Nato

Officials in Tbilisi said there was no evidence that Russian troops were leaving Georgian territory, but the Russian defence ministry said the redeployment had begun and would be complete within days.

As Nato’s 26 foreign ministers gather in Brussels, the BBC’s Jonathan Marcus says there is disagreement among the alliance as to how to respond, so the focus will be on where members can agree.

It is thought that in one camp, Britain, Canada, the US and most Eastern European member states will seek a tough stance on Russia, but most of Western Europe, led by France and Germany, is expected to be more cautious of harming ties with Moscow.

Flying to the Nato meeting, Ms Rice told reporters: “We have to deny Russian strategic objectives, which are clearly to undermine Georgia’s democracy, to use its military capability to damage and in some cases destroy Georgian infrastructure and to try and weaken the Georgian state.”

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

Our correspondent says the summit, called at the Americans’ request, looks set to offer strong support to the government in Tbilisi, stressing Nato’s commitment to Georgia’s sovereignty.

A Nato spokeswoman told AFP news agency: “I think you can expect a strong message to Russia.”

The alliance is also expected to reiterate its backing for the agreement it reached in Romania back in April that Georgia will one day be offered membership of Nato, without setting any dates.

Nato is also expected to offer more humanitarian aid and proposals on how to rebuild Georgian infrastructure damaged in the conflict.

Our correspondent says Nato’s immediate diplomatic goals are a full Russian withdrawal, an enhanced observer force and, ultimately, a more neutral peacekeeping arrangement.

He says high-level contacts between Nato and Russia could be suspended if Russians do not pull back to the positions their peacekeepers occupied before the hostilities.

HAVE YOUR SAY
The sight of GWB [US President George Bush] complaining about Russia’s “disproportionate use of force” is hilarious

Max, London

Washington has denied claims from Moscow that it is out to wreck the Nato-Russia Council – a consultative panel set up in 2002 to improve ties between the former Cold War enemies.

Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s ambassador to Nato, said on Monday he hoped the “decisions by Nato will be balanced and that responsible forces in the West will give up the total cynicism that has been so evident [which] is pushing us back to the Cold War era”, reported the Associated Press news agency.

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili struck a conciliatory tone on Monday as he called for talks with Russia, saying: “Let’s resolve problems through civilized methods.”

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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.

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August 16, 2008

Russia signs up to Georgia truce

Russia signs up to Georgia truce

Russian troops

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

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has signed a ceasefire agreement with Georgia after receiving it in Moscow.

The deal calls for all military activity to stop and for troops from both sides to pull back into pre-conflict positions.

The deal was signed on Friday by Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili.

But Russian forces remain deep in Georgian territory, and correspondents say many obstacles remain in the way of full implementation of the peace deal.

At stake is the future of Georgia’s breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

US-backed Georgia has vowed it will not accept any loss of its territory, but Russia insists that following the recent violence, residents are unlikely to want to live in the same state as Georgians.

The crisis, which began nine days ago, saw Georgian forces launch a surprise attack to regain control of South Ossetia, only to be decisively repelled by Russian forces.

Russian ‘advances’

On the ground in Georgia, Russian forces had moved forward overnight.

Russian forces still control Gori, which lies some 15km (10 miles) from the border with South Ossetia.

Several tanks and armored personnel carriers were seen in Kaspi, west of Gori and some 35km north-east of the capital Tbilisi – an advance of some 15km on their previous position. Lorries of soldiers were seen heading towards the town.

Meanwhile, Russian troops were seen patrolling in Zestafoni, some 100km west of Gori along a major highway.

The Russian army brought in a large number of irregulars, mercenaries… They go around drunk, aggressive, armed and do all these atrocities
Mikhail Saakashvili
Georgian president

Georgian officials also said Russian forces remained in the Georgian Black Sea port of Poti, the site of a major oil shipment facility, and a major Russian military contingent is further inland, at Senaki.

The crisis began on 7 August, when Georgian forces launched a surprise attack to regain control of South Ossetia, which has had de facto independence since the end of a civil war in 1992.

The move followed days of exchanges of heavy fire with the Russian-backed separatist militias. In response to the Georgian assault, Moscow sent armoured units across the border into South Ossetia to intervene.

Obstacles ahead

Scores of people have been killed by the fighting and tens of thousands displaced.

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

The EU-brokered ceasefire agreement which both sides have now signed includes a pledge to pull all troops back to their pre-conflict positions.

It also contains a plan to begin international talks about the future status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who was in Tbilisi on Friday, has demanded the immediate withdrawal of Russian forces from Georgian territory.

But Russia argues its forces are there to ensure civilians face no threat from Georgian troops.

Mr Saakashvili has accused the Russians of committing war crimes.

A displaced Georgian woman rests just outside the town of Gori (15/08/08)

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

“The Russian army brought in a large number of irregulars, mercenaries,” he said. “They go around drunk, aggressive, armed and do all these atrocities.”

He criticized the West for not granting Georgia membership of Nato, saying it could have prevented the fighting.

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

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will meet the Russian permanent representative in New York, possibly on Saturday, because he has so far been unable to contact the Russian president, officials have said.

‘Watching with alarm’

President Bush is set to hold a video conference with some of his most senior staff, including Ms Rice and Defence Secretary Robert Gates, to discuss the crisis in Georgia.

George Bush (file)
President Bush said Russia had to act to end the crisis in Georgia

On Friday, Mr Bush said Russia’s actions in Georgia were “completely unacceptable”.

“The world has watched with alarm as Russia invaded a sovereign neighbouring state and threatened a democratic government elected by its people,” he said.

He called upon Russia to end the crisis or risk its credibility on the global stage.

Mr Bush said he would send his secretary of state to Brussels next week to discuss how to deal with Russia with Nato foreign ministers and EU officials.

But the president did not respond to comments from Russia’s deputy chief of staff, who said Moscow would be justified in launching a nuclear attack if Poland went through with its agreement to base US interceptor missiles on its territory as part of Washington’s controversial defence shield.

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