Russia Says 2 Regions in Georgia Are Independent

Russian troops pulled out of the Georgian city of Gori on Friday night to comply with a cease-fire agreement. But U.S., French and Georgian officials later disputed Russia's assertion that it withdrew its forces.
By Philip P. Pan and Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, August 27, 2008

MOSCOW, Aug. 26 -- Russia recognized the independence of two breakaway provinces of Georgia over the strong objections of the United States and much of Europe on Tuesday, escalating tensions in the region as Russian troops dug in on Georgian soil and U.S. warships prepared to deliver humanitarian aid to an occupied port city.

President Dmitry Medvedev, addressing the nation in a live television broadcast, said he signed decrees recognizing South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states to protect residents of the regions from Georgian attacks, which he described as "genocide."

"This is not an easy choice to make, but it represents the only possibility to save human lives," Medvedev said, arguing that Moscow had shown "restraint and patience" for years in the face of Georgian "provocations."

The Russian decision was not likely to change the situation on the ground, as both territories have enjoyed de facto autonomy from Georgia for more than a decade. But it amounted to a bold reassertion of Russian power in a region that Moscow considers part of its sphere of influence and a pointed challenge to President Bush, who had warned the Kremlin not to recognize the territories the day before.

Georgia's pro-Western president, Mikheil Saakashvili, said Russia was trying to "militarily annex" a piece of his nation. "The Russian Federation is seeking to validate the use of violence, direct military aggression, and ethnic cleansing to forcibly change the borders of a neighboring state," he said in a statement. "This is a challenge for the entire world, not just Georgia."

The reaction in the West was swift and stern. In a written statement, Bush urged Russia to "reconsider this irresponsible decision," which he said violated U.N. resolutions as well as the French-brokered cease-fire agreement that ended the fighting between Russia and Georgia. "Russia's action only exacerbates tensions and complicates diplomatic negotiations," he said.

Speaking to reporters in Crawford, Tex., where Bush is finishing a vacation, White House spokesman Tony Fratto said any attempt by Russia to seek recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia at the United Nations would be "dead on arrival."

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the Russian move was "absolutely unacceptable," and the British foreign secretary, David Miliband, said he was working to "ensure the widest possible coalition against Russian aggression in Georgia." France, which holds the rotating presidency of the European Union, also denounced the decision and scheduled an emergency summit of European nations in Brussels next week to discuss a response.

"Nothing scares us, including the prospect of a cold war, but we don't want it," Medvedev said in a televised interview. "In this situation, everything depends on the position of our partners."

Russia has withdrawn its troops from much of the territory they occupied during a five-day rout of the smaller Georgian army. But Russian soldiers continue to patrol and man checkpoints in what Russia calls "security zones" in undisputed Georgian territory, including the Black Sea port city of Poti. Georgia and its Western allies say their presence violates cease-fire terms.

In a conference call with foreign journalists Tuesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the troop presence was necessary to serve as an "early warning system" against further Georgian attacks and was permissible under a clause of the cease-fire agreement that allowed Russia to take "additional security measures." He said Russia welcomed international observers in these areas and was willing to discuss an "international regime" that would take the place of its forces. But Lavrov asserted that Russian troops would stay until then, "no matter how long it takes."

Georgian officials said that after Medvedev announced his decision to recognize the separatist provinces, Russian troops encircled at least six villages, forced Georgian police to leave, and then allowed Ossetian militiamen to evict ethnic Georgian residents and burn down their homes, apparently as part of their drive to create a security zone outside South Ossetia. Shota Utiashvili, a spokesman for Georgia's Interior Ministry, said about 2,000 people were forced from their homes.

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