Russian Parliament Backs Regions in Georgia

By Philip P. Pan and Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, August 26, 2008

MOSCOW, Aug. 25 -- The Russian parliament unanimously urged President Dmitry Medvedev on Monday to recognize the independence of two breakaway regions of Georgia, a move that would escalate what has become one of the most serious conflicts between Russia and the United States since the end of the Cold War.

Neither Medvedev nor Prime Minister Vladimir Putin indicated whether the government would follow through and formally recognize the secession of South Ossetia and Abkhazia over the objections of the United States and Georgia's other Western allies. But in separate remarks, the two Russian leaders declared the government was ready to suffer a breakdown in relations with NATO and setbacks in its efforts to join the World Trade Organization.

The defiant statements and the resolution adopted by both houses of parliament, which is under the Kremlin's firm control, appeared coordinated to signal that Russia will not give in to demands that it withdraw all of its troops from Georgian territory and is prepared to deepen the international crisis if the United States and Europe attempt to retaliate.

In a statement issued at his ranch in Crawford, Tex., President Bush said that he was "deeply concerned" by the move and that recognition would violate both a cease-fire agreement and United Nations resolutions. "I call on Russia's leadership to meet its commitments and not recognize these separatist regions," Bush said. "Georgia's territorial integrity and borders must command the same respect as every other nation's, including Russia's." Bush said the United States "will continue to stand with the people of Georgia and their democracy and to support its sovereignty and territorial integrity."

Earlier yesterday, the White House said Vice President Cheney would travel to Georgia next week as part of a trip that will also include stops in two other former Soviet republics, Azerbaijan and Ukraine.

The European Union also said the two breakaway regions should remain part of Georgia, and a senior Georgian official warned that a Russian move to recognize the provinces could lead again to war.

"I don't think any Georgian government can accept losing those territories," said Temuri Yakobashvili, Georgian minister for reintegration of the breakaway regions. "Absolutely, in the future, this is a recipe for future clashes. If it is accepted by the Russian government, sooner or later, the fighting will re-erupt."

But Sergei Mironov, speaker of the Russian parliament's upper chamber, the Federation Council, said it was Moscow's duty to recognize the two provinces. "Recognition by Russia of the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia is the necessary condition for ensuring the security of these peoples," he said as he submitted the resolution.

The leaders of both breakaway regions appealed to Russian lawmakers for their support. "Neither Abkhazia nor South Ossetia will ever be one state with Georgia again," said Abkhazia's president, Sergei Bagapsh. "The people of South Ossetia and Abkhazia have made their choice in life, and they have made up their minds about with whom they should be and build their economic and political relations."

Sergei Markov, a lawmaker from the pro-Kremlin United Russia party, said the parliament's vote did not mean Russian recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia was inevitable. He said the vote was intended to send "a very strong signal to the West that we're very serious" as negotiations about the future of the territories continue.

The Kremlin does not want to recognize the provinces and provoke a crisis, Markov said, but it will do so unless Russian troops are allowed to protect the residents of the two regions against Georgian attacks. "If you're not ready to give guarantees to the Abkhazians and Ossetians of peace and stability in the region, we will recognize them," he said. "If the West is ready to give these guarantees, Russia will not recognize them." Markov added that Abkhazia and South Ossetia would "only see these guarantees as real if Russians take part."

Over the past week, Russia has withdrawn troops from much of the Georgian land they occupied during the five-day assault by tanks and bombers that drove Georgian forces from South Ossetia. But the Russian military remains in control of what it calls a "buffer zone" of Georgian territory outside the disputed provinces. Russian officials say their soldiers are needed in those areas to maintain peace and defend residents of the two breakaway regions, many of whom have been granted Russian passports.

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