Russia defies West, recognizes breakaway Georgia regions

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 26, 2008 

MOSCOW — Russia on Tuesday formally recognized the independence of the two Georgian regions that its military now occupies, further inflaming relations with the U.S. in a standoff that recalls the Cold War.

The announcement by President Dmitry Medvedev, in disregard of repeated U.S. warnings, confirmed Russia's return to the world stage as a military power willing to use force to recapture former Soviet territories. It raises the prospect that the two breakaway areas, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, eventually will join the Russian Federation or operate as satellites.

"We're not afraid of anything, of the prospect of a Cold War," Medvedev told Russian television in an interview Tuesday. "Of course, we don't want that. In this situation everything depends on the stand of . . . the world community and our partners in the West."

Medvedev said that if Western powers are willing to work with Russia, the situation will "be calm."

"But if they choose a confrontational scenario, we will be responsive," he said.

There was strong condemnation of Medvedev's announcement from Washington and several European capitals, and no sign that any nation of strategic significance will follow Russia's lead.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called the Kremlin's decision "extremely unfortunate."

"Abkhazia and South Ossetia are a part of the internationally recognized borders of Georgia and it's going to remain so," Rice said.

President Bush urged Russia to "reconsider this irresponsible decision," which he said was inconsistent with U.N. Security Council resolutions that predate the conflict and a French-brokered cease-fire agreement.

The conflict began with fighting earlier this month between the U.S.-backed Georgian government and Russia-backed South Ossetian forces, turning into a five-day war in which Russia crushed the Georgians.

A U.S. Navy destroyer is now off the coast of Georgia, with two more military ships reported to be on the way, carrying humanitarian aid. At least one of those ships is scheduled to dock at the port of Poti on Wednesday, within sight of a newly built Russian military position.

The Russian government was displeased by the U.S. moves at sea but didn't seem overly alarmed.

"Of course this raises some questions, because normally battleships do not deliver aid and if it is a battleship diplomacy or rather battleship humanitarian diplomacy, of course it does not make the situation more stable," said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in a teleconference with reporters. "But this is the choice of those who deliver aid."

Medvedev said Tuesday that sovereignty for the regions and strong Russian military support was necessary to prevent a Georgian "genocide" of their residents, many of whom recently have been issued Russian passports.

Georgian leaders say the Russians long have planned to make a brutal example of their country in retribution for pursuing NATO and European Union membership.

"This is like a bullfight in Spain, when someone sticks a knife in the bull, and it is bleeding and people are waiting for the bull to die," said Georgian parliament member Dmitri Lortkipanidze. "The Russian political strategy is based on destroying Georgia."

Lavrov said during his conference call with reporters that in entering South Ossetia by force, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili "buried the territorial integrity of his country."

Moscow has had a long-running dispute with Georgia since it broke off from the Soviet Union in 1991 and declared the two enclaves to be part of Georgian territory. Russian anger sharpened this year over NATO expansion and a planned U.S. missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic. Kosovo's February declaration of independence, backed by Washington, further raised Kremlin ire.

"Each case of recognition is by its nature a separate case — a special case in Kosovo, a special case in South Ossetia and Abkhazia," Medvedev said in the television interview. Russian newswires ran several reports confirming that the governments of South Ossetia and Abkhazia hope to establish close ties with Moscow.

"We will always be with Russia," Abkhaz leader Sergei Bagapsh was quoted as saying.

Medvedev's announcement Tuesday came a day after the Russian parliament passed a nonbinding resolution calling for Abkhaz and South Ossetian independence.

Gennady Gudkov, a Russian legislator, said the speed with which the decision was made reflected Russia's anger over what it perceives as Western bias against it.

"This super-tough attitude angered Russia and finally it kind of took the bit between its teeth and said: All right, if this is the way you make the world see it, we shall go the way we want," said Gudkov, who is deputy head of the defense committee in Russia's Duma, its lower house. "Today's decision has brought clarity to an ambiguous situation."

Vladimir Pribylovsky, a Moscow analyst, said he expects more tension in the days ahead as oil- and gas-rich Russia flexes its muscles.

"This decision is fraught with serious consequences, and primarily with a deepening crisis in Russia's relations with the West," said Pribylovsky, the head of the Western-leaning Panorama think tank in Moscow. "The war with Georgia dealt these relations a crucial blow, but the Kremlin does not care. . . . It is willing to demonstrate that it can afford to ignore Western opinion."

Despite Russian claims that Georgian forces are regrouping in the center of the country, officials in Tbilisi say they're pinning their hopes not on military action, but on Russia isolating itself by overplaying its hand.

"We have already seen the Georgian army cannot resist the Russian army, and I don't see that any Western countries are eager to send their forces here," said Temuri Yakobashvili, Georgia's minister for reintegration, who was a principal negotiator with Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Talk of more fighting misses the point, he said: "It's high time to understand what's happening in Georgia is not about Georgia, it's about the world order."

Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, was asked Tuesday whether he was concerned about international reaction.

"I don't think we should really be afraid of isolation," he said. Lavrov added that "common sense should prevail" and reminded reporters that some countries are more self-sustaining than others, a thinly veiled reference to Europe's heavy dependence on Russian natural gas.

Amid the conflicting interests being played out across Georgia, Pribylovsky, the Moscow analyst, said he was certain that "we are in for a long period of mutual malevolence."

(Lasseter reported from Tbilisi, Georgia. Burakovskaya is a McClatchy special correspondent. Shashank Bengali contributed to this article from Poti, Georgia.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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