No Sign of a Russian Departure in Georgia

Russian forces showed signs of withdrawal in some areas of Georgia, but announced plans to strengthen their presence in others, two weeks after conflict began on Aug. 8.
By Tara Bahrampour and Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, August 19, 2008

ZUGDIDI, Georgia, Aug. 18 -- Russian troops remained camped out Monday in a Georgian military base in this western city and in a nearby house said to be the Georgian president's vacation retreat, showing no sign of leaving on what Moscow called Day One of a pullout from Georgia.

A field down the road toward the town of Senaki was filled with Russian tanks, artillery and nervous-looking soldiers who cocked their automatic weapons as reporters approached.

In the central city of Gori, meanwhile, Russian troops snapped souvenir photos of each other. Russian armored vehicles moved eastward from the town to a point about 30 miles from the capital, Tbilisi, and plowed aside Georgian police vehicles at a checkpoint.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, visiting a base in southern Russia used during the brief shooting war last week, pinned medals on soldiers who helped expel Georgian forces that had seized the capital city of South Ossetia, a separatist zone in Georgia. "Thank you for your courage, for protecting civilians, for standing in the way of those who brought death to the people of South Ossetia," he told them.

Flying to an emergency meeting of the NATO alliance in Brussels, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pledged support to Georgia. "Georgian democracy stands and it will stand," she said. "Georgian infrastructure will be rebuilt. Georgia's economy will be reinforced." But she said that NATO is unlikely to speed up a reconsideration of Georgian membership in the alliance, as the Georgian government wants.

For the first time since the Georgian crisis began, Rice placed it in the context of what she described as increased Russian taunting of some of NATO's most powerful members. Flights by Russian TU-95 Bear bombers into what the United States considers its "defensive air space" have notably increased during the past six months, U.S. officials said.

After expelling Georgian forces from South Ossetia, the Russians advanced deep into undisputed Georgian territory and have remained there, sending columns of troops up and down major roads, entering cities and military bases unopposed.

Journalists and diplomats viewing various Russian positions around the country Monday reported no sign of a general pullout. About the only possible evidence of a wind-down was a convoy of Russian trucks that a Reuters news agency photographer in South Ossetia saw moving toward the Russian border.

Georgian officials said that rather than pull back, the Russians broadened their presence Monday in some places, sending armored columns for the first time toward Borjomi city, southwest of Gori, and Sachkhere, to the northwest.

The main road along the Black Sea coast remained clear Monday, with local residents heading to the beach in the muggy heat. But there were signs of resentment: a bridge had new graffiti reading, "Russia Occupier" beside a swastika.

Sitting in a park in Zugdidi, Guli Todua, a gray-haired woman in a black kerchief and black dress, said she fled the city last week when the Russians arrived. "They could not do anything bad to the people because there were no people in the town," said Todua, 59, who hid in a village for several days. "Now, people are coming back."

For now, the city is not altogether theirs. An armored personnel carrier was parked in front of a modern-looking house that local people said belongs to Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.

In Poti, the Black Sea port where last week Georgian gunboats were scuttled and offices ransacked, a port employee said Russians came Sunday to film the area.

Reporters outside the Senaki military base about 25 miles away saw several large explosions send up huge clouds of brown smoke; Russian troops inside were apparently blowing up Georgian military assets.

Near Borjomi, to the south, hundreds of acres of forest parkland continued to burn, Georgian officials said. By their account, Russian troops had dropped firebombs there. According to the World Wildlife Federation, Georgia is unable to put out the fires and has received offers of help from Ukraine, Turkey and Azerbaijan.

What remains of Georgia's military has kept a low profile since Georgian forces were routed from South Ossetia more than a week ago, staking out a few positions along the highway west of Tbilisi, and leaving the police to man positions closer to the Russians to prevent further military confrontation, said Shota Utiashvili, a spokesman for Georgia's Interior Ministry.

In Gori, where Russian troops remained in full control, the sometimes demeaning aspects of occupation were on display during an impromptu news conference conducted Monday by David Kalekashvili, Georgia's state minister for regional development. "The Russians have to keep their promises. This is a never-ending story, and there is not a single sign that they will begin the withdrawal as they said they would," Kalekashvili shouted, his face reddening.

He addressed reporters beside a statue of Joseph Stalin, a few blocks from the late Soviet dictator's ancestral home. As he spoke, a Russian truck arrived. More than a dozen soldiers poured out and began photographing each other by the Stalin statue. "I've been here and I will stay here," said a Russian captain named Vladimir, who declined to give his last name. "We are here to keep peace between the two sides."

Russian Col. Oleg Kiriokov, who was escorting visiting Russian journalists on a Kremlin-sponsored visit from South Ossetia, had a different take. "The sooner we leave, the better for Russians," he said.

Earlier in the day, he had taken the journalists to see 14 Georgian prisoners of war, he and some of the journalists said. By his account, the Russians wanted to exchange them for five Russian captives believed to be held in Georgia, but the Georgian side would not negotiate. Georgian officials have blamed the Russians for a failure of exchanges.

"It will happen in time," Kiriokov said. "Meanwhile, they are being well treated and well fed and given medical care."

Finer reported from Gori. Staff writer Karen DeYoung in Brussels contributed to this report.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company