Russia vows to give military support to separatist regions in Georgia
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said Russia will provide military aid to South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the two separatist regions at the centre of its ongoing military conflict with Georgia — a sign Russia has no intention of backing down in the face of Western criticism.
The most recent clash over the two secessionist provinces began Aug. 7 when Georgian forces started shelling the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, hoping to retake control of the province. Russian forces poured into the region and pushed the Georgians out in a matter of days and then drove deep into the former Soviet republic.
Fighting has ended, but on Sunday, a handful of Russian soldiers armed with automatic rifles leaned casually on concrete road dividers at the Karaleti checkpoint, about six kilometres north of the city of Gori, which Russian forces had controlled until Aug. 22.
They made cursory inspections of the occasional car headed into the zone. A soldier said movement was completely free and the only concern was whether people were carrying weapons.
But that was not the point for refugees housed in a camp at a playing field in Gori. They claim the Russian forces say their security cannot be guaranteed, and many fear not only local militias and bandits but the Russians themselves.
The refugees fled in the war over the separatist region of South Ossetia, which is now under tight Russian control along with a security zone that reaches about six kilometres into Georgia proper.
"We are afraid to go back if there won't be any police or soldiers [to guard the returnees]," said Tsiuri Mariamidze from the buffer-zone village of Kitznisi. "The Ossetians were coming in cars … pushing young people into cars and taking them to Tskhinvali [the South Ossetian capital]."
In comparison, the camp in Gori is a sanctuary of civility, despite the refugees having to get water from a hose and endure portable toilets smeared with excrement.
Georgia appears likely to be hosting tens of thousands of refugees for a grindingly long and expensive time. How much aid the small and struggling country will need to support them is to be among the top issues of discussion at a European Union emergency summit on Monday.
Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili said the EU summit was a sign of strong global support for Georgia.
"Russia today has found itself more isolated than the Soviet Union ever was," he said in a televised statement.
U.S. sent aid to Georgia
The United States also has sent substantial aid to Georgia following the war, with the help of naval ships and military aircraft. Russian officials speculated the U.S. was trying to restore Georgia's armed forces, which had received massive military aid from Washington in recent years.
Asked whether the U.S. was considering new military aid, Sen. Bob Corker said on a Saturday visit to Gori that "these subjects are part of a longer and midterm discussion" when Congress reconvenes in September.
Under an EU-brokered ceasefire, both sides were supposed to return their forces to pre-war positions, but Russia has interpreted one of the agreement's clauses as allowing the security zones, now marked by Russian checkpoints.
Georgia has severed diplomatic ties with Moscow to protest the presence of Russian troops on its territory. It claims, as does the West, that Russia is violating the EU agreement. Russia and Georgia are keeping consular offices in each other's capitals to assist their own citizens.
Moscow condemned the diplomatic cutoff, which will require Georgia and Russia to negotiate through third countries if they negotiate at all. That would make for a sticky situation because Russia sees Western nations as biased in Georgia's favour.
Georgia, which had pushed for a greater role for international organizations in the dispute, could see it as advantage.
But it may bring little change, because there were few signs of productive diplomacy even before the war.
Russia has faced isolation over its offensive in Georgia and its recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. No other country has followed suit and recognized the regions' independence. The U.S. and European nations have condemned Russia's actions but are hard-pressed to find an effective response.
Medvedev said he expects agreements soon to lay the basis for "allied" relations with Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
"These international agreements will spell out our obligations on providing support and assistance: economic, social, humanitarian and military," he said.
With EU leaders set to discuss how to deal with an increasingly assertive Russia, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has angrily warned Europe not to do America's bidding and said Moscow does not fear Western sanctions.
Adding to the tension, a lawmaker in South Ossetia said Russia intends eventually to absorb the province.
South Ossetia broke away from Georgia's central government during a war in the early 1990s, and many see integration into Russia as a logical next step for the province, which has closer ethnic ties to North Ossetia, in Russia, than with Georgia.