Russian parliament recognizes breakaway Georgian enclaves

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 25, 2008 

MOSCOW — Russia's parliament voted unanimously Monday to recognize the independence of two Georgian breakaway regions that its military invaded earlier this month, intensifying the Kremlin's showdown with the United States.

If approved by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, the resolution would give a domestic legal basis for Russia to essentially take control of the areas, in defiance of the U.S.-backed government of Georgia.

In Washington, American officials condemned the measure, saying that it would be "unacceptable" for Russia to follow through.

While it is not certain that Medvedev will give a green light to the legislation, its passage was a strong signal from Moscow.

"Today the parliament was doing the paperwork on what has happened de facto: Russia has formally acknowledged that it is a protector of South Ossetia and Abkhazia," said Valery Solovey, a Moscow-based analyst with the Gorbachev foundation, a western leaning think-tank.

Russian leaders said they weren't worried that NATO would cut off cooperation in response and seemed confident that America and other western countries will come to terms with Russia's actions because they have no other choice.

Medvedev said in Sochi, which borders the rebel area of Abkhazia, that he was not especially troubled that NATO might sever ties with Russia.

"If they choose to break off this relationship, even the whole of it, nothing terrible will happen," he said, according to state news services.

President Bush called on Medvedev not to recognize the independence of the rebel provinces, saying in a statement that, "Georgia's territorial integrity and borders must command the same respect that as every other nation's, including Russia's."

Bush pointed out that in embracing a French-brokered ceasefire accord, Medevdev agreed to international talks on the security and "stability modalities" of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

"This represents an internationally endorsed approach to these issues which recognition would undercut," Bush said. "Recognition would also be inconsistent with unanimously approved United Nations Security Resolutions that Russia has consistently voted for in the past. The United States will continue to stand with the peoples of Georgia and their democracy and to support its sovereignty and territorial integrity."

The White House also announced that Vice President Dick Cheney would visit Georgia next month to demonstrate U.S. support for Georgia. Cheney also will stop in the former Soviet republic of Ukraine, which like Georgia is seeking NATO membership, as well as gas- and oil-rich Azerbaijan and Italy.

Meanwhile, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the presumptive GOP nominee for president, announced that his wife, Cindy McCain, would be visiting Georgia this week to assess the humanitarian situation there.

McCain, who has taken a hard line on the Russian invasion, also told a fund-raising luncheon in California, that, "Russian aggression is now basically trying to dismember that country in many ways."

Alexander Kozlovsky, deputy head of the foreign committee in Russia's lower house, echoed a sentiment held by many in Russian political circles.

"I am positive that Europe and the U.S. will respond in a reasonable manner; the U.S. economic situation is not good, Russia is on the rise," he said in an interview. "We need cooperation."

A U.S. Navy destroyer is currently anchored in the Black Sea just off the coast of Georgia, reportedly to deliver humanitarian aid, and at least two more warships are en route.

While South Ossetia and Abkhazia have little strategic value of their own, the fighting and subsequent Russian occupation of the two enclaves and a wide swath of Georgian territory beyond sent a strong signal about Moscow's anger about western powers' expansion toward its borders.

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, a White House favorite, enraged the Kremlin this year by aggressively pursuing membership in both NATO and the European Union.

A NATO meeting in April that left the door open for eventual membership for Georgia and Ukraine, another former Soviet republic, set Russia and Georgia on a collision course, said Gia Jandieri, an analyst in Tbilisi.

A major obstacle for Georgia's entry to NATO was Georgia's inability to control South Ossetia and Abkhazia, a situation it was apparently trying to resolve with its push into South Ossetia on Aug. 7, which Russia crushed in the days after. Russia had long been issuing passports to residents of both regions, setting up claims that it had a responsibility to protect its citizens against Georgia.

"It created a competition between the two sides, with one side trying to deal with these conflicts and the other wanting to blow them up," Jandieri said.

In Moscow, a senior general made clear that international monitors would not displace Russian troops in the two provinces, or in a buffer zone extending a few miles further.

"We have to state once again that Russia has never given its consent to a replacement of Russian peacekeepers in the conflict zone with" units from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said Col. Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn, deputy of the Russian military's general staff.

In Georgia, officials were dismayed but not surprised.

Giorgi Kandelaki, deputy chair of the Georgian parliament's foreign relations committee, said Russia's intentions are obvious.

"What they're doing is annexing parts of an emerging European democracy," he said. But he saw a silver lining: "This will only increase Russia's international isolation, the Russians are shooting themselves in the foot," Kandelaki said.

(McClatchy correspondent Jonathan S. Landay contributed from Washington. Lasseter reported from Tbilisi, Georgia, and Burakovskaya, a special correspondent, reported from Moscow.)

More from McClatchy:

Amid Georgians' tales of violence, death toll is unclear

Russia withdraws from some positions in Georgia

U.S. Olympic team picks Georgian to lead them in closing ceremony

McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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