Thursday, August 6, 2009

The South Ossetian War: One year later

A year ago this week, Georgia attacked Russia. It was like Jamaica attacking the United States. It was such a foolish and foredoomed act that at first most people believed the Georgian propaganda blaming it all on the Russians. Surely Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili wouldn't do something so utterly stupid. But he did - and he lost, of course.

There are two hang-overs from the week-long war that still have not cleared up, however. One is the lingering impression in the West, left over from the way that Western media reported the conflict at the time, that the "Russian bear" has turned nasty and expansionist. The other is a promise to Georgia that should never have been made.

In the year since the war, it has become clear that the Georgian attack, which sought to regain control of the breakaway territory of South Ossetia, was planned well in advance. The Russians only responded after their peacekeeping troops in South Ossetia came under Georgian attack, but the Georgians won the propaganda battle.

Saakashvili painted the Russians as evil aggressors, relying on Cold War stereotypes: "Russia's war on Georgia echoes events in Finland in 1939, Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968," he told the Washington Post in August, 2008. It fitted Western preconceptions, so the media went along with it.

So did U.S. presidential candidate John McCain, condemning Russia's "violent aggression" and claiming that "Russian actions, in clear violation of international law, have no place in 21 century Europe." Barack Obama was more circumspect, but in the midst of an election campaign he chose not to expose his flank to the Cold Warriors of the Republican Party by openly challenging their version of events.

The other problem, from a European perspective, was U.S. President George W. Bush's push to get Georgia and another former Soviet republic, Ukraine, admitted to the NATO alliance. These countries are to the south of Russia, not between it and Western Europe, and bringing them into the Western alliance would alarm and alienate the Russians. Yet there is no practical way that NATO could defend them if they got into a fight with the Russians.

Indeed, this concern may have been the main motive behind the creation of a European Union commission to investigate the origins of the war. The commission is led by Swiss diplomat Heidi Tagliavini, who has served in the area as an observer, and it has been gathering evidence for almost a year now. If its conclusions blame the war on Georgia, as seems likely, they will not be unwelcome in Brussels.

Some of those conclusions were leaked last spring to the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel, and they support the contention that Georgia deliberately concentrated its troops and launched a surprise attack on South Ossetia, with the aim of seizing control of the province before Russia could respond.

Between 16,000 and 20,000 Georgian troops, all equipped with modern U.S. weapons, attacked the South Ossetian militia and about 1,000 Russian peacekeeping troops who were stationed there on the night of 7 August. Even the Georgian "peacekeeping" battalion that was also stationed in the province took part in the attack. The local capital, Tskhinvali, fell into Georgian hands within hours, and dozens of Russian troops were killed or injured.

Moscow responded quickly, and a large Russian force, including heavy armour, was sent south from the Russian province of North Ossetia through the tunnel under the main Caucasus range (which the Georgians had failed to secure) on Aug. 8. In one more day Georgian troops had been driven out of South Ossetia, and the Russians even followed them some distance into Georgia proper before withdrawing again at the end of the month.

Erosi Kitsmarishvili, Georgia's former ambassador to Moscow and a former confidant of Saakashvili's, testified to the Georgian parliament last November that Georgian officials told him in April 2008 that they planned to start a war to recover Abkhazia, one of Georgia's two breakaway regions, and had received a green light from the United States government to do so. He said the Georgian government later decided to start the war in South Ossetia, the other region, and continue into Abkhazia.

Both the evidence of observers on the ground and the testimony of disillusioned Georgian officials like Kitsmarishvili are driving the EU commission toward the conclusion that Russia merely responded to the Georgian aggression. It will be helpful to have an authoritative Western body acknowledge that Russia has not undergone some fundamental change of strategy.
The EU commission, whose report has been postponed until next month, will not formally recommend against Georgia joining NATO, but the implication there will also be clear. Nobody really believed that NATO would ever fight World War Three to save Georgia, even it were the innocent victim of Russian aggression, but by attacking Russia Saakashvili got everybody off the hook.

Retired British army colonel Christopher Langton, senior fellow for conflict and defence diplomacy at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, summed it up only weeks after the war. "Georgia's dream is shattered, but the country can only blame itself for that."

By Gwynne Dyer,

Friday, May 8, 2009

Georgia, Russia put off S. Ossetia talks

A second round of security talks between Georgia, Russia and the rebel Georgian region of South Ossetia has been postponed amid rising Moscow-Tbilisi tensions, officials said on Thursday.

The discussions, aimed at reducing the risk of violence in the area around South Ossetia, were due to take place on Thursday in line with an agreement reached in April during a first meeting. "It has been postponed because we could not agree on a suitable location," a spokesman for European Union ceasefire monitors in Georgia, Steve Bird, told AFP. "We tried a number of different locations but they weren't acceptable," he said.

Georgian interior ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili blamed Russia and South Ossetia for the cancellation. He said that after initially agreeing to hold the meeting further inside Georgian-controlled territory, the Russians and South Ossetians said late on Wednesday that was no longer acceptable.

"We regret their refusal to participate," he said. But an official with Russian military forces in South Ossetia blamed Georgia, saying the meeting "has been indefinitely postponed due to the unconstructive position of the Georgian side".

He told the Itar-Tass news agency that Georgia had initially agreed the meeting could be held in the same location as the first round of talks, the border village of Ergneti, but later insisted on other locations. Sporadic violence has continued around South Ossetia since an EU-brokered ceasefire was signed in August, ending a brief conflict over the rebel region. Tensions between Georgia and Russia have remained high since the war. Moscow has been fiercely critical of Nato military exercises that began in Georgia on Wednesday. A new round of talks aimed at preventing another war is to take place in Geneva on May 18-19.

Georgia row escalating

The reset button in Russia-NATO relations appears to have well and truly jammed after Moscow and the Brussels-based military alliance both threw out diplomats in a messy spy scandal. Unraveling against the backdrop of this latest row is a curious mutiny by a Georgian battalion slated to take part in joint NATO exercises in the Caucasus country, which Moscow has vigorously opposed.

While the Georgian government has accused Russia of trying an attempted coup, the Georgian opposition insists that it was President Mikhail Saakashvili who staged a theatrical show so he could blame Russia and brag before his NATO allies. Russia, meanwhile, is claiming that NATO is just trying to provoke a White House bent on restoring positive relations.

All this has cast a heavy shadow over Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov's visit to Washington this week, where he is expected to meet with U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

"I am certain that a pro-war faction has formed within NATO," Dmitry Rogozin, Russia's envoy to NATO, said by telephone from Brussels when asked about the expulsion of two Russian diplomats this week. "There are people in NATO whose teeth are set on edge by all those peaceful statements by Barack Obama. And they are going to get in the way of normal, improving relations between Russia and NATO. For them, it is important to present Russia as an enemy. This creates a basis for their reactionary plans to develop NATO based on the old, Cold War scenario. This is a provocation, a conspiracy against Obama."

Rogozin said he drew these conclusions from the way the decision to expel the diplomats was revealed. "I was told of this decision only after a session of the Russia-NATO Council had ended, giving me no chance to react. A considerable number of ambassadors from NATO countries called me the other day to express their anger at this decision, they too had not been informed beforehand."

Asked how exactly these hawkish elements hoped to provoke the U.S. administration, he explained: "They are certain that we will react adequately, symmetrically. All those plans that we had agreed on, had shaken hands on, they are all being suspended indefinitely."

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has already canceled a NATO meeting scheduled for May 19 as a protest against the NATO exercises, while Rogozin said this was also a response to the diplomatic expulsions.

An EU-brokered meeting between Georgia, South Ossetia and Russia that was scheduled for Thursday was cancelled, although officials did not attribute it directly to the diplomatic row. Meanwhile, Russian allies in the CIS, Armenia and Kazakhstan, have pulled out of the joint exercises after President Dmitry Medvedev said it was unwise to hold them so soon after August's military conflict in Georgia over the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

NATO has pressed on with the exercises, which started on Wednesday and will run through until June 1.

On Tuesday, the Mukhrovani armored tank battalion near Tbilisi refused orders to take part in the exercises and called for dialogue between the government and the opposition, which has been rallying in the capital for weeks for Saakashvili's resignation. Georgia's Defence Ministry that day claimed it had not only suppressed an armed coup, but also infiltrated a plot to assassinate Saakashvili.

The Georgian opposition claims that the government's exaggerated response was staged by Saakashvili. "There was no mutiny, it was all staged to distract attention away from the real problems and blame it on Russia," said Bidzina Gudjabidze, a member of parliament for the opposition Conservative Party.

His party is campaigning for Saakashvili's resignation, but has strongly condemned Russia's military action in South Ossetia and its recognition of the republic's independence. Moscow-based military analysts said that NATO's insistence on holding the exercises is puzzling, given their relatively low military significance.

"These are General Staff exercises held in headquarters, not on the field," said Ivan Safranchuk, a defence analyst. "The level of these games has declined. NATO is in a delicate situation regarding Saakashvili. On the one hand, they find him a liability. But they keep up the obligations."

Rogozin said that NATO officials had explained the necessity of the exercises to him by saying that the organisation "had to save face."

"We had warned the alliance through diplomatic channels that it is quite possible during the exercises that Saakashvili will stage some sort of provocation against foreign military personnel," he said.

"I don't think the mutiny was entirely a spectacle, there could have been some genuine dissent," says Alexander Tchatchia, a Tbilisi-based political analyst at the Institute for Globalisation Problems. "But I do think the mutiny was deliberately provoked. It plays into the hands of Saakashvili and NATO" because it shows genuine decent and pluralism on the one hand, and the president's ability to peacefully deal with it on the other.

On the Russian side, officials were "deliberately overreacting to underscore our vigilance over Saakashvili," said Safranchuk.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Russian-Georgian talks on South Ossetia postponed indefinitely

A scheduled meeting between Russia, the European Union, Georgia and its breakaway region of South Ossetia will not take place because of Georgia's rigid position, a spokesman for Russia's Defense Ministry has said.

"The four-party talks on averting an incident in the border zone scheduled for today has been postponed indefinitely because of Georgia's non-constructive position," commander of the Russian military base in South Ossetia told Itar Tass news agency on Thursday.

Georgia met officials from the region for the first time in the conflict zone on April 23 at talks facilitated by the EU and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

"Contrary to the agreement reached earlier, Georgia refused to host the meeting in the Ergneti settlement not far from South Ossetia border, and offered to hold it in the town of Gori, further away from the borderline. South Ossetia rejected the offer," the spokesman said.

2nd Caucasus normalisation talks disrupted by Georgia

Another, second meeting of officials of Russia, South Ossetia, Georgia and the European Union on the normalisation of the situation in Georgia's border region with South Ossetia has been disrupted through Georgia's fault, a representative of the command of the Russian military base in South Ossetia told Itar-Tass on Thursday.

"The planned for today second four-sided meeting on matters of preventing incidents in the border zone has been indefinitely postponed due to unconstructive position of the Georgian sided," he said.

"The Georgian side, contrary to the earlier reached agreement, refused to hold this meeting in its territory in the Ergneti village near the border with South Ossetia, but proposed to hold it in the city of Gori located far from the border. This proposal for a number of reasons, including security considerations, was not satisfactory to the South Ossetian side that refused to go to Gori," the Russian military base official explained.

"Thus the second four-sided meeting on the normalisation of the situation in the Caucasus has been indefinitely postponed through the Georgian side's fault," he said.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Fewer in Georgia Want to Join NATO

Fewer people in Georgia-yet still a majority-are expressing support for their country to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), according to a poll by the Institute of Polling and Marketing, Baltic Surveys/Gallup, and the International Republican Institute. 63 per cent of respondents back NATO accession, down 24 points since September.

NATO was originally formed in 1949 as an agreement of collaboration designed to prevent a possible attack from the Soviet Union on North America or Western Europe during the Cold War. In March 2004, NATO added seven more nations, six of which were once members of the Warsaw Pact-a military alliance of Eastern European Soviet countries.

According to international regulations, South Ossetia and Abkhazia belong to Georgia-a former Soviet republic. In the early 1990s, both pro-Russian regions became de facto independent but failed to be fully recognized as sovereign nations. Separatist factions operate in both regions.
In August 2008, a military conflict broke out between Russia and Georgia over South Ossetia and Abkhazia, where many Russian citizens live. On Aug. 8, Georgian forces entered South Ossetia to assert sovereignty over the region, and Russia responded with a full military operation that saw Russian soldiers take control of Georgian territory beyond South Ossetia. A ceasefire was later brokered by the European Union (EU). On Aug. 26, the Russian government officially recognized the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Georgia is currently led by pro-Western politicians. Last year, it was promised access to NATO.
On May 3, Russian president Dmitry Medvedev accused NATO of "muscle-flexing" as it was confirmed that close to 1,000 NATO soldiers will conduct military exercises at a Georgian army base east of Tbilisi this month.

Polling Data

Do you support Georgia joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)?

Feb. 2009 Sept. 2008

Support 63% 87%

Oppose 17% 8%

Not sure 11% 6%

Nato to begin Georgia exercises

Nato is to start a series of military exercises in Georgia, a day after the government thwarted an attempt by its own soldiers to stage a mutiny.

Soldiers from 18 countries are taking part in the drills at a Georgian army base close to the capital, Tbilisi.
But Russia has said the exercises amount to a provocation.
They come just nine months after Russia's short war with Georgia and are taking place close to areas where Russian troops are stationed.

More than 1,000 soldiers will take part in the exercises over a period of more than three weeks.
For Georgia, which has been promised eventual Nato membership, they are a sign that, despite doubts over its candidate status after last year's war with Russia, it has not been forgotten.
Russia views the exercises as a provocation and has turned down an invitation to send observers.

In recent days its security forces have officially begun patrolling the border between South Ossetia, the epicentre of last summer's conflict, and Georgia. The Georgian government has repeatedly said Russia's actions are to blame for raising tension in the region.

It also accuses Moscow of backing the mutiny at an army base on Tuesday and supporting an alleged coup plot. Russia has denied the allegations.

The Georgian government is hopeful that the Nato exercises will give it a chance to prove to its Western allies that it can host an important international event without further disturbances.


Russia's Lavrov visits U.S. to prepare for Obama-Medvedev summit

Russia's foreign minister embarks on a U.S. visit on Wednesday to prepare for a bilateral summit due in July as part of the two countries' pledges to rebuild ties.

Sergei Lavrov will meet with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington on Thursday, their second meeting since they symbolically pressed a "reset" button in Geneva in March to improve relations that plunged to a Cold War low under the George Bush administration.
In Washington, Lavrov will also meet with senior members of Congress and deliver a speech on Russia-U.S. relations at the Carnegie Center, according to Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko.

"We expect substantial discussions at meetings with the leadership of the State Department, Congress and the expert community on current Russian-American relations and the problems that await resolution to ensure their sustainable development," Nesterenko said last week.

Arms control will dominate Lavrov's visit to the United States, as the two countries have pledged to draft a new arms reduction treaty to replace the Cold War-era START 1 treaty that expires in December.

The first round of "full-format" talks on the new treaty are due to take place in Moscow on May 18, with the aim of providing an outline for the pact before Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and U.S. President Barack Obama meet in July.

Lavrov's visit could be overshadowed, however, by fresh tensions in Georgia. The former Soviet republic on Tuesday accused Russia of orchestrating a failed revolt at a military base. Moscow dismissed the charges as "insane."

Russia's war with Georgia over pro-Russian South Ossetia last August and the subsequent recognition of the breakaway region by Moscow fueled tensions with the United States and other Western powers.

Moscow's relations with NATO were also strained over the expulsion last week of two Russian diplomats by the alliance. Lavrov in response said he would not attend a NATO-Russia Council meeting later this month. The move came after Moscow and the alliance resolved to resume ties suspended following the war with Georgia.

On Monday, Lavrov will preside over a UN Security Council session on Middle East conflicts. Russia is the council president in May.

Russia retaliates against Nato over spies and Georgia

Russia-Nato relations hit a new low on Tuesday over a spy row and military exercises due to kick off in Georgia, as Tbilisi accused Moscow of staging a military coup at one of its bases.
Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov cancelled his planned meeting of the Nato-Russia Council on 18 May and the government expelled two Canadian diplomats working at the north Atlantic alliance's information bureau in Moscow.

The move came as tit-for-tat to Nato's expulsion of two Brussels-based Russian diplomats accused of spying. One of the two men, administration director Vasily Chizhov, is also the son of Russia's ambassador to the EU, Vladimir Chizhov.

Russia had already pulled out of a planned meeting among senior military staff on 7 May in protest at the military exercises due to start today in Georgia.

Moscow has called the simulations "muscle flexing" and insisted that Nato to cancel them, saying they were taking place "where there was recently a war", alluding to the Russian invasion of Georgia after Tbilisi launched an attack against separatist forces in South Ossetia.

In a parallel development, the Georgian government on Tuesday stopped an attempted army mutiny that they say was staged by Russia and designed to disrupt the Nato exercises. A former Georgian special forces commander and a tank battalion commander were arrested.

President Mikhail Saakashvili called on Russia to stop its "provocative maneuvers" in Georgia.
A spokesman for the Interior Ministry said that initial evidence and secret recordings show that the mutineers had Russian backing. The investigation was ongoing, he added.

Moscow denied involvement in the events and dismissed the accusations as "ridiculous."
The US reacted cautiously, calling the foiled mutiny plot an "isolated incident" that the Pentagon was still assessing.

Defense Department spokesman Bryan Whitman avoided the question of Russian involvement and stressed that the incident would not change "our long-term relationship with Georgia."
Meanwhile, in Prague, the EU is set to launch its Eastern Partnership - a new neighbourhood policy towards Georgia, Ukraine, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Moldova and Belarus, where president Saakashvili is also due to attend.

The embattled Georgian president has been facing opposition street protests since 9 April calling for his resignation over the failed August war and lack of democratic reforms.
Georgia is of key importance to Europe, as it is a major transit route for oil and gas pipelines coming from the Caspian Sea and bypassing Russia.

An EU energy summit dedicated to this route dubbed the "Southern Corridor" is also due to take place in Prague on Friday.

Fresh front threatens Saakashvili

Yesterday's drama in Georgia is a reminder that the struggle for power and influence in Georgia could derail relations between Russia and Nato, and raises questions over European hopes that the region will become a secure energy supply route.
Georgia hosts strategic transit pipelines carrying Caspian oil and natural gas exports to the west. It is crucial to energy security in Europe, which is trying to reduce its dependence on Russian supplies.

The apparent mutiny, described at one stage by Georgia as an attempted coup, underlines the precarious position of Mikheil Saakashvili, the western-backed president, who many analysts say is unlikely to see out his four-year term.

His credibility was dented beyond repair by last August's disastrous war with Russia, which he was accused of starting and which resulted in the loss of the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Street protests against the president's rule have become a regular fixture since early April, and while yesterday's mutiny was shortlived it demonstrated how opposition to Mr Saakashvili may be spreading throughout the establishment.

Georgian officials said the Russian secret services were behind the plot, which was timed to coincide with the start of Nato military exercises in the country.

Moscow's interest in seeing Mr Saakashvili leave power is clear, though Russian officials rushed yesterday to deny Georgian claims that the Kremlin financed the "coup" attempt.

Dmitry Rogozin, Russia's Nato envoy, said the alliance's refusal to cancel the military exercises would "further provoke Georgia's downfall and could possibly destabilise the situation in neighbouring regions".

Andrei Klimov, deputy chairman of the committee for international relations in the state Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament, called yesterday's events a "show" made for western consumption, which would help Mr Saakashvili distract Georgians from opposition demonstrations that have become a regular fixture in the capital. "This is one of Saakashvili's tricks. He is a master of such shows," he said.

Alexander Rondeli, the head of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies in Tbilisi, said the government needed to show evidence supporting its accusations against Russia and the alleged coup's ringleaders. But it was possible that the drama was at least partly inspired from Moscow, he added. "Russia is not just sitting on its hands and watching our country."

The situation in Georgia has put the administration of Barack Obama, US president, in a difficult position. Washington's support for Mr Saakashvili is a sticking point in an otherwise improving relationship with Moscow, underlined by a cordial meeting between Mr Obama and Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president, in London in April.

The Obama administration insists it wants to "press the reset button" with Moscow. But relations were strained again last week when Moscow signed an agreement that, in effect, took control of the borders of Georgia's breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, a move that the US said was "another step in the wrong direction".

The military exercises due to take place in Georgia this week by countries involved in Nato's partnership for peace have also irked Russia, which sees them as a provocative action in a country it regards as under its sphere of influence.

Sergei Lavrov, Russia's foreign minister, yesterday pulled out of a meeting of the Nato-Russia council. He had been due to attend a meeting of foreign ministers on May 18, intended to cement improved relations between Russia and Nato.

The meeting would have looked at a range of security issues, including co-operation between Russia and Nato on Afghanistan and joint attempts to combat piracy off the coast of Somalia. Moscow told Nato diplomats Mr Lavrov's decision was a response to the defence alliance's move to expel two Russian diplomats in the aftermath of a spying scandal, as well as Nato's intention to hold military exercises in Georgia.

Mr Obama has little room for diplomatic manoeuvre. His overtures to Russia, along with other traditional enemies of the US, have attracted the ire of the US rightwing. Delaying the Georgia war games would be viewed as a concession to Russia, and might cost Mr Obama politically at home, a Washington-based analyst said. The US department of defence said the mutiny appeared to be an isolated incident but added it was monitoring the situation. "It doesn't change our long-term relationship with Georgia," the Pentagon said.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Georgia to host rival contest after Eurovision ban on Putin song

Banned from the Eurovision Song Contest for an anthem that mocked Russia's Prime Minister, the Georgians have hit back by organising a song festival of their own.

The organisers of Alter/Vision have invited pop groups from all over Europe to participate in their rival event, which will take place at the same time as the Eurovision final in Moscow on May 16. It is an impertinent response to the ruling that the original Eurovision entry, a disco song performed by Stephane and 3G entitled We Don't Wanna Put In - a play on the name of Vladimir Putin - was too political.

The entry was seen as a protest over the war in Georgia's breakaway region of South Ossetia last August. The European Broadcasting Union banned the song after deciding that it broke competition rules against political statements.

Georgian Public Television, which held the national contest, was asked to revise the lyrics or submit an alternative. Instead, it withdrew from Eurovision, complaining that organisers had bowed to "unacceptable" pressure from Russia, which is hosting the contest for the first time.
The Georgian Ministry of Culture is backing the alternative festival, to be held in the capital, Tbilisi, from May 15-17. Organisers said that it would feature 20 acts from nine countries, including Britain, France, Germany and Russia, but that there would be no voting to choose a winner.

"It's our moral support to the people who were supposed to sing at Eurovision but won't be there," a spokesman, Irakli Matkava, said. "We want to express true European values of freedom and fun. Eurovision is about bureaucratic control and censorship. It's more about a country's prestige than music."

The Russian hosts of this year's 54th Eurovision final are unlikely to lose sleep over this display of rivalry from Tbilisi. They would have been far more worried about the prospect of Mr Putin, who is not known for laughing off criticism, being mocked on live television in front of 100 million viewers across Europe.

Even so, Russia's own entry has been mired in controversy after a Ukrainian singer was chosen to represent the country soon after the "gas war" between the two former Soviet neighbours. Anastasia Prikhodko had already been rejected in Ukraine and her victory in Moscow sparked allegations of vote rigging from a losing finalist.

Contestants have begun to arrive in Moscow for rehearsals at the giant Olympiyski Arena before two semi-finals on May 12 and 14 to whittle down the 42 participating nations to 25 for the final.
Dmitri Shepelev, a journalist with the state-controlled Channel One television, will be the host. "The only thing I don't want is political questions. I'd like this contest to be focused on unity," he said yesterday.

RF, S Ossetia, Georgia, EU to meet for second time on May 7

Representatives of Russia, South Ossetia, Georgia and the EU will meet for the second time after the events in the Caucasus last August on May 7.

They will meet on the Georgian territory to discuss normalization of the situation in the border district of Georgia with South Ossetia, the first deputy head of the Land Troops' main headquarters, Lieut. Gen. Sergei Antonov told Itar-Tass on Tuesday.

"We've already received the relevant notification from the head of the EU observer mission in Georgia, Hans Jorg Haber, on the readiness for this meeting," he said.

"Russia's representatives who will directly resolve all issues emerging in the border district of Georgia with South Ossetia will take part. Among them will be representatives of the Russian military contingent in South Ossetia," he said.

Antonov represented Russia at the first four-party meeting in Georgia' s village of Ergneti on April 23.

Monday, May 4, 2009

S Ossetian Supreme Court chairman dies in road accident

South Ossetian Supreme Court Chairman Atsamaz Gabulov has died in a road accident.
The accident occurred on Friday evening on the Tskhinval-Znaur highway, the Prosecutor General's Office said.

"As a result of a technical failure, the Volkswagen Golf car lost control, drove off the road, overturned and hit a tree," the Prosecutor General's Office said.

Gabulov "died at the scene from the bodily harm", it said.

Russian Troops Guard Rebel Regions

Russian border guards have begun defending the de facto borders between Georgia and its breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

The deployment, announced Saturday, quickly followed the signing of a deal that formalized Russia's control over the borders of the regions at the center of last summer's brief war with Georgia.

The border guards department for southern Russia said its troops took full responsibility for guarding the borders of South Ossetia and Abkhazia on Thursday, the same day that the leaders of both regions signed an agreement with President Dmitry Medvedev giving Russia control over the borders. The first border guards arrived in South Ossetia on Thursday, it said.
"The border must be securely closed and made inaccessible for enemies," said Nikolai Lisinsky, who heads the border guards department in southern Russia, Interfax reported.

He said video surveillance and unmanned aircraft would be used to patrol the border, but no barbed-wire fences would be put up and South Ossetia would remain accessible "for those who seek peace with us."

In Abkhazia, the region's border service said Russian border guards were deployed together with Abkhaz troops along the land borders. Abkhaz troops continued to guard the Black Sea coast, although Russian naval vessels were deployed off shore, the service said.
Russia has announced plans to start building a naval base in Abkhazia.

In signing Thursday's deal with Abkhaz leader Sergei Bagapsh and South Ossetia leader Eduard Kokoity, Medvedev indicated that Russia's intention was to strengthen its position that the cease-fire that ended last summer's war had been superceded by subsequent agreements with South Ossetia and Abkhazia. "This, without any doubt, is a political act," Medvedev said at a Kremlin ceremony. "These documents develop the agreements on friendship, cooperation and mutual assistance that were signed some time ago in this hall."

Kosachev says Saakashvili a liar, Russia forced to intervene in Georgia

Nine months after the start of last year's Russian-Georgia skirmish - which both sides said the other started - a tense peace is holding in the region, where Russian troops remain in the former Georgian provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which broke away after the conflict ended and were recognized by Russia. The fallout continues, however, as Russia and Georgia have had an on-again, offagain series of spats and war of words over the blame game.

In an interview with New Europe's television arm, NETV, on the sidelines of the European People's Party convention in Warsaw, Poland April 29-30, Konstantin Kosachev, Chairman of the International Affairs Committee of the Russia Duma, reiterated the Russian position that it was Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili who began the conflict by having Georgian troops move into South Ossetia last August, which the Russian lawmaker said forced Russia to deploy its own troops, and only after, he said, Saakashvili misinterpreted signs from the West, such as promises Georgia would get into NATO, and which led him not to talk with Russia over the provinces which had long sought to break away.

"As long as you do not communicate, as long as you try to use military force to solve these conflicts, you will come nowhere, and this is what Russia tries to prevent and this is why Russia was forced - I would like to stress it - was forced to intervene and was forced later on to recognise the independence of these two Republics for the simple reason they had no other alternative if you had to secure the lives of people living there, to bring security and peace to the region." He said Georgia tried to convince the United States and European Union that it was Russian aggression against a small country that was at play. "In case you do not look into details in the prehistory of a conflict, this one would definitely seem to you that a small but free and democratic Georgia fighting this large aggressive Russia, but this is very much simplified ... it's a conflict not between Georgia and Russia, it's a conflict between Georgia and South Ossetia, Georgia and Abkhazia."

The conflict didn't last long. After five days of heavy fighting, the Georgian forces were ejected from South Ossetia and Abkhazia and Russian troops entered Georgia, occupying the cities of Poti and Gori among others. After mediation by the French presidency of the European Union, the parties reached a preliminary ceasefire agreement, but fighting did not stop immediately, but after Russia pulled most of its troops out of Georgia, buffer zones were established around Abkhazia and South Ossetia and Russia created check points in Georgia's interior before recognizing the former Georgian provinces, which Georgia considers Russian-occupied territories.

Asked whether Saakashvili inadvertently walked into a bear trap by misreading international signals he thought were equivalent to support, Kosachev said, "The major mistake Saakashvili made was to promised his people, his electorate, to solve the problems of South Ossetia and Abkhazia by the end of his second term. As soon as you give those kind of promises, you are trapped. You have no other options but to do something and that's what he was trying to do." Kosachev said it was critical to remember that Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in February of 2008 and within two months was being recognized by some European countries, although Russia opposed it and still fiercely does.
"I believe, at that moment, Saakashvili interpreted that development in the wrong way, that the territorial integrity of states is no longer a holy cow in Europe, and (felt) ‘This is how I need to do something, I need to be quick, I need to be resolute, in order to keep the territorial integrity of Georgia while the territorial integrity of other countries like Serbia are being changed.'"


Kosachev added that, "I believe it was an individual decision by Mr. Saakashvili, but I cannot deny that all these games that, let's say NATO played with Georgia, (promising) ‘We shall give you a membership, and membership is absolutely possible, and we will definitely support you in all your disagreements with Russia.'

That was also a very false wrong signal given and maybe misinterpreted by Mr. Saakashvili. But in any case it was the wrong attitude and it provoked this type of developments." Since then, some political analysts have said Russia's end game was to have the Americaneducated Saakashvili deposed by his own people, and the Georgian president indeed has been under immense pressure at home because of the disastrous consequences of the conflict, which razed Georgian communities, and which led to the deaths of hundreds of soldiers and civilians. Kosachev was coy in his answer, but led to the conclusion that, while it would not act directly, Russia would not be unhappy if Saakashivili were out of office, suggesting strongly that is the only way for relations between the countries to get better. He was harsh in his assessment of Saakashvili's behaviour, referring to him as "Mr." instead of President.

"Mr. Saakashvili has repeatedly promised us on different occasions, not to use military force, which he used in August last year, so Mr. Saakashvili personally does not have any confidence in Russia. We cannot communicate with a person who lies. This is what he has done and this is what he is still doing. I believe the position now inside of Georgia is much better than previously. What happens with Mr. Saakashvili is definitely a domestic affair for Georgia, and we will definitely not interfere, not at all. But I believe the chance for improving relations between Georgia and Russia will come sooner or later, but will come when we have some other leadership in Georgia."
Last year, Kosachev, in his position as Russia's representative to the Council of Europe, which is the main bastion of human rights for the EU, accused the Georgian president of violating the values of the council, ignoring human rights and the rule of law. Kosachev, a veteran diplomat who manages to mix strong suggestions with political boilerplate, said then what he reiterated to NETV, although he was more couched at the time, not long after the conflict, when tensions were running high and the EU was going to send monitors to the region. "Russia had no other choice but to act immediately, protecting people's lives, protecting peace in the region and enforcing peace," he told Russia Today. If anything, as he showed when he talked to New Europe, Kosachev has gotten tougher on Saakashvili.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

NATO, Russia resume formal political talks, differences remain

NATO and Russia resumed formal political talks on Wednesday with a meeting of the ambassadors of the 28 allies and Russian envoy Dmitry Rogozin after a freeze for eight months. NATO said there were positive signs from the Russian side, particularly on the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty. But Russia blasted the alliance for its planned military exercises in Georgia, which Russia briefly invaded in August 2008. The NATO-Russia Council (NRC) meeting at ambassadorial level was the first formal one since August 2008 when NATO angrily suspended all high-level political contacts with Russia following the Russia-Georgia military conflict in the Caucasus.

"The meeting opened with a shared view that the NATO-Russia Council meeting was a very welcome one, that the time has come to take the next step," said NATO spokeswoman Carmen Romero. "There was positive expectation of the future work of the NATO-Russia Council."
She said the council discussed ways to "make the most of the NRC," without going into details. The parties also discussed the upcoming NRC at ministerial level, which will be held in the second half of May, she said. Romero said there are positive signs on compromise between NATO and Russia on the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty. "Where there seems to be new energy is the CFE issue. There seems to be a positive spirit of compromise, including in the framework of the NRC," she said.

But Rogozin was more cautious. He told reporters after the meeting that serious discussions would be held elsewhere, most probably in Geneva, rather than in the NRC. "Let us just not run into that too early. We have not just yet started that discussion." Russia suspended its obligations under the CFE treaty in 2007, citing the fact that none of the NATO countries had ratified it. NATO has since tried to bring Moscow back to the treaty, which limits the quantity of tanks and other conventional weapons in Europe. NATO has said the CFE treaty was a corner stone for European security.

The council also touched upon Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's proposals for a new European security architecture. The majority of the countries in the NRC held that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) would be the appropriate forum for discussion, although they did not rule out discussions within the NRC, said Romero.

Rogozin said, however, that this issue should also be discussed in the NRC because "the NRC is first of all concerned with hard security issues." Wednesday's NRC meeting comes at a time of uneasy relations between NATO and Russia over the alliance's military exercises in Georgia between May 6 and June 1.

Romero said the parties discussed the issue and that their positions did not change. Rogozin, however, lashed out at NATO, labelling the exercises as "totally out of place." He said he was not convinced by NATO allies' explanation that the exercises pose no threat to Russia's security.

"I insist that these exercises are totally out of place," he told reporters after the meeting. "Any muscle flexing along our borders is not acceptable at all." He noted that the exercises will be held against the background of parliamentary elections in the Georgian breakaway region of South Ossetia, the first such poll after Russia's recognition of independence of the region. "I cannot name it other than political blackmailing."

Rogozin said Russia is also worried by statements from high-ranking U.S. officials that the NATO exercises are meant to support Georgia's territorial integrity. He blamed NATO for its "political blindness" that refuses to recognize Russia's national interests. "In a sense, NATO reminds me of a blind rhinoceros."

NATO has said the two series of exercises were planned in January 2008, long before the August 2008 Russia-Georgia military conflict over South Ossetia. But Rogozin argued on Wednesday that the fact that they were planned long ago does not mean that they could not be postponed or even cancelled altogether. He said the exercises would mean that NATO is ready to do business as usual with Georgia after the conflict, but at the same time is pursuing a policy of no business as usual with Russia, referring to the freeze of political contacts. "At least this was some sort of interruption that we couldn't get an answer to," said Rogozin.

NATO has said Russia, as a Program for Peace partner of the alliance, was actually invited to the exercises but Moscow turned down the invitation. NATO said it would welcome Russian observers to the games to clear up misunderstanding. But Moscow has rejected the offer. Russia also called off a meeting with NATO chiefs of defense scheduled for May 7. Before the NRC meeting on Wednesday, NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said he was looking forward to the meeting. But that does not mean NATO and Russia would suddenly agree on everything.

"There are a number of issues where we should seriously work together. But we should not shy away from difficult issues where we fundamentally disagree," he told reporters after a meeting with Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev in the morning. "The NATO-Russia Council is not a fair weather body." De Hoop Scheffer said the two sides should work together in weapons non-proliferation, Afghanistan and the fight against terrorism. But they still have fundamental differences over issues such as the territorial integrity of Georgia and the CFE treaty.

Abkhazia-Georgia border continues to be flashpoint of violence

Russia has helped Georgia's former breakaway regions South Ossetia and Abkhazia make their borders more secure, but even with the new measures, people in the two regions say they still don't feel safe on home soil.

A checkpoint in the Abkhazian town of Gali on the border with Georgia came under fire several weeks ago. Abkhazian border patrolmen blame Georgian militants for the shelling. They say the group illegally crossed the border at night and launched a sneak attack.

"In the morning they walked around and found RPG shells at the bus stop nearby," recalls Radik Agrba, deputy commander at the ‘Ingur' checkpoint.

Abkhazia declared independence from mainland Georgia in the early nineties. For more than 15 years it remained a frozen conflict zone. In 2008, after Georgia launched a military campaign against Tskhinval, Russia recognised South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states, signing treaties on diplomatic and military cooperation.

Following separate terrorist attacks in the capital Sukhum last year, Abkhazian officials ordered the border with Georgia to be blocked, blaming Tbilisi for organizing them.

The situation at the checkpoint in Gali remains tense, but locals say it is possible to get into Georgia - but not for sight-seeing. Despite recent incidents the border remains open for those traveling for humanitarian reasons, such as family events and medical emergencies. Many locals have relatives abroad, so they have to cross this bridge every once in a while.

The Gali district is the only territory of Abkhazia where ethnic Georgians are a majority. Over 60,000 refugees returned to the region in recent years.

Local resident Avtandil Ezugbaya is the headmaster of the school in Gali. His wife Liya recently gave birth to their son Luca. The family hopes to share the good news with their relatives in mainland Georgia.

"After the war the ties were broken, but not all ties. He's still in touch with his relatives, but he wants to see them more often. Politics are politics, but he'd like to restore all human ties," says Avtandil Ezugbaya.

Officials in Gali say they would be glad to make the border more open for civilians and harder for criminals to cross, but it cannot be done without Russia's help. A deal to allow both sides to modernise their checkpoints is a long-awaited agreement, says Ruslan Kishmaria, a presidential envoy to the Gali district.

"There were attacks every day and the district needed this treaty like air and water. And they've been waiting for the treaty for a very long time," says Ruslan Kishmaria.
It is expected that Russia will provide training for Abkhazian officers and the latest technology for the checkpoints. And that in turn, may help minimize the terrorist threat, making life in Gali safer and more peaceful.

Russia Today

Russia to help SOssetia, Abkhazia protect borders

Russia will help South Ossetia and Abkhazia to protect their borders against a feared new Georgian attack that Tbilisi may be heartened to launch after a NATO exercise next month.

On Thursday Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and his counterparts from South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Eduard Kokoity and Sergei Bagapsh, will sign an agreement on joint efforts to protect state borders. Additional agreements will be signed by the security services of the three countries.

Russia recognized independence of the two former Georgian provinces following the Georgian aggression against South Ossetia in August.

"Due to the remaining revanchist intentions of Tbilisi and its course towards remilitarization, as well as aggressive and provocative conduct on the borders with South Ossetia and Abkhazia the holding in Georgia of a NATO exercise on May 6 - June 1 -- no matter what they say about its planned and routine character - cannot be assessed other than moral encouragement of the recent aggressor and a provocative gesture against Russia," a Kremlin official said.

The agreements envisage that Russia will provide assistance to South Ossetia and Abkhazia in training border guards and developing national border services.

"The agreements become specifically vital in the context of the situation that emerged in TransCaucasia today. It is unstable and explosive," the Kremlin official said and explained that Georgian army with heavy hardware and police forces are concentrating close to the borders of the two republics.

Russia estimates some 2.5 Georgian men are staying close to the borders where they erected 50 stationary and mobile posts. "Artillery and armor are being moved to the border areas with South Ossetia," the official said adding the number of provocations has been on the rise of late.
He also said resolute ongoing calls of the Georgian opposition for the resignation of President Mikhail Saakashvili intensified political struggle in Georgia, which is "fraught with any possible provocations of the Saakashvili regime".

The official said the three presidents will also discuss Russian economic assistance to South Ossetia and Abkhazia. In 2009 the Russian government plans to earmark to South Ossetia that was destroyed by massive Georgian shelling 8.5 billion rubles and additional three billion rubles from extra-budget funds.

Russia's Gazprom giant will complete in July the construction of a mountain gas pipeline that will pump fuel to South Ossetia directly from Russia bypassing Georgia that cut gas supplies to South Ossetia in winter. So far 30 out of 80 kilometers of the pipeline were built.

Russian companies plan to invest close to one billion rubles into Abkhazia and restore the highway linking Sukhum with Sochi, renovate a hospital in Sukhum and the New Afon Orthodox monastery, as well as energy utilities and residential quarters.

Georgia-Russia: 'dialogue is the only way forward'

The Assembly reviewed the action taken by Georgia and Russia on Resolution 1647 (2009) adopted by the PACE in January 2009.

"The information report submitted by the co-rapporteurs of the Monitoring Committee (Luc Van den Brande (Belgium, EPP/CD) and Mátyás Eörsi (Hungary, ALDE)) concluded that Georgia has not yet fully complied with all of the Assembly's demands. Russia, for its part, has failed to comply with most of the demands and might even be seen as moving further away from the minimum conditions for meaningful dialogue," PACE reported.

The report re-affirms that both countries must fully comply with the Assembly's demands set out in Resolutions 1633(2008) and 1647 (2009) ; in addition, it calls on both countries to implement without delay a series of steps to avoid a deterioration of the security situation and stability of the region, as well as to ensure that the minimum conditions for a meaningful dialogue between Russia and Georgia are met. The rapporteurs "continue to be convinced that the establishment of a genuine dialogue is the only way forward for the resolution of this conflict and the long-term stability in the region".

Konstantin Kosachev: "PACE makes errors in South Caucasus"

Chairman of the State Duma committee on international affairs Konstantin Kosachev said on Wednesday PACE insistence to politicize the situation related to South Ossetia and Georgia in its resolution on humanitarian issues was erroneous.

He also told Vesti TV channel PACE is taking no concrete action and is only observing the situation.

"There is no talk about the provision of any funds, about any projects, they simply state that the situation is difficult and we naturally agree with such an assessment," he said.

He welcomed PACE calls on conflicting parties to refrain from mounting tensions and resolve the problems of those people who have not yet returned to normal life.

"At the same time the Assembly continues to make mistakes," he said, adding "several political, politicized amendments were introduced in today' s resolution on humanitarian aspects of the situation."

Kosachev said PACE continues to call the border of Russia-recognized South Ossetia with Georgia as the administrative border like it was when Georgia and South Ossetia were in one state.

"Many believe that any other definition would mean an indirect recognition of the independence of South Ossetia, However, when they say ‘administrative border', there is a feeling that border may be anytime crossed by the Georgian armed or police forces," Kosachev said.

"As a result, the meaning of a border as a factor of protection of the people living in the zone of tensions weakens considerably. Alas, they do not understand it here and thus, directly or indirectly, promote deterioration and degradation of existing problems, rather than their solution," he added.

Earlier Kosachev told Tass PACE decision to discuss humanitarian rather than political issues of the conflict reflected a certain change in the position of the Assembly compared to the radical stance at the winter session.

"The most important thing today is to help people in the zone of conflict, protect their interests and security," he said and expressed hope that "sooner or later mutually acceptable definitions will be reached."

Kosachev recalled that Georgia and South Ossetia are holding consultations in Geneva promoted by the European Union and OSCE.

"The Council of Europe stays away from the process. That is a direct result of the mistakes, which the Assembly and the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe made in assessing the conflict in South Caucasus and its consequences," he said.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Chechens living in Georgia request refugee status to return home

About 90 Chechens living in Georgia have requested refugee status since January to allow them to return to Chechnya, the head of the Russian republic's migration department said Tuesday.

"Our department has received about 90 applications from Georgian residents requesting visas and other documentation to return to Russia. These are mainly ethnic Chechens living in Georgia," Asu Dadurkayev said.

Dadurkayev cited the recent South Ossetia conflict as a reason for the increase in applications.
Russia and Georgia fought a five-day war in August 2008 after Tbilisi launched an offensive on its former republic of South Ossetia in an attempt to bring it back under central control.
"The applications are currently being considered in line with a federal refugee law and procedures," he said.

Dadurkayev said that over 3,000 people had returned to Chechnya from the neighboring North Caucasus republic of Ingushetia since the year start, adding that a total of 350,000 people had returned home since 1999 out of more than 500,000 that fled in the 1990s.
Last week saw a surge in attacks on Russian troops in Chechnya just two days after the Kremlin announced that its 10-year counter-terrorism operation in the troubled region had formally ended.

The attacks prompted Russia's Interior Ministry to announce on Friday that it was reintroducing anti-terrorism operations in three districts in southern Chechnya.

Russian federal troops launched the counter-terrorism operation in Chechnya in the fall of 1999 after a group of militants led by Shamil Basayev and Arab mercenary Khattab invaded neighboring Daghestan. Moscow conducted a separate campaign in Chechnya in 1994-1996.

Russia asks Georgia to return deserter

Russia's General Prosecutor Office has requested Georgia to extradite a Russian sergeant accused of desertion, RIA Novosti reports. Sgt Alexander Glukhov abandoned his military unit and crossed the Georgian border in January.

"We have information that Sgt Glukhov is on Georgian territory now. Therefore, the General Prosecutor Office decided to direct the request to Georgia's Main Prosecutor Office to extradite Sgt Glukhov for the purpose of bringing him to trial," spokesperson for the Russian office Marina Gridneva said on Tuesday.

Sergeant Alexander Glukhov disappeared in January from his unit in South Ossetia and asked for asylum in Georgia. Georgia and Russia fought a war last August over South Ossetia and Abkhazia, breakaway pro-Russian provinces of Georgia. Tbilisi's forces tried to retake it, unleashing a massive counter-attack by Russian troops.

No justice in cellblock Georgia

Stepping outside of the Marriott Hotel in Tbilisi late at night on April 21, we encountered a 24-hour occupation of Rustaveli Avenue in front of the Georgian parliament building, reportedly four days old.

The street is occupied by at least 125 metal-framed boxes, dimensions approximately 6 feet wide by 6 feet high by 4 feet deep. Each box is covered with a plastic banner fabric labeled in large red English letters, "CELL," and a unique identifying number. Each cell is occupied by one or more people gathered together on wooden pallets, where they may spend the night.

Occupation of the public square is the latest attempt by citizenry opposed to the government of President Mikheil Saakashvili, who has been in power since January 25, 2004, and who won re-election in November 2008. Opposition meetings started last November in the wake of the devastating Russian invasion of Georgia last August.

The war was triggered when Saakashvili ordered a military attack on breakaway province of South Ossetia, populated by an ethnic minority that has had the support of Moscow since Georgia gained its independence with the collapse of the USSR in 1991. So when Georgian troops attacked South Ossetia, Russia seized the opportunity to reassert its imperial power and punish the U.S.-backed Saakashvili, who seeks to have Georgia join the NATO alliance.

Months before the Russian invasion, Saakashvili had undermined his support by using authoritarian tactics against his former allies, including police violence and a state crackdown on independent media. Since the war, the opposition has only grown.

Today, the spirit of the mixed-age crowd occupying Rustaveli Avenue is friendly, festive and peaceable, though people are eager for events to unfold. We interviewed four English-speaking Georgians: Vakkho, age 17; George, age 17; Archil, age 18; and Zura, age 18.

"The cells indicate all of Georgia is in a cell," said Archil. "We are living in prisons. These people are here and don't need to live with injustice. It's a protest of the government, not our country." The young men agreed the protests will remain until Saakashvili resigns. They said protesters have been beaten by police at night, in and around the cell structures.

Local newspapers proclaim international support for Saakashvili as he faces protests at home. On April 17, Georgia Today quoted Saakashvili as saying: "Our foreign minister and the U.S. secretary of state are meeting each other for already second time in a month. The U.S. has such relations with only very few countries."

Saakashvili noted, however, that his close relations with the U.S. dated to the Bush administration. Indeed, Tbilisi has a "George Bush Street." As Saakashvili said to Georgia Today: "I admire American ideas. I used to idealize America under Bush when ideas were above pragmatic politics."

George said the protests are nationwide, not just in Tbilisi. "More cells are being brought in," he said. "There will be 500."

According to George and his friends, the cells were originally an idea from Georgian pop star Giorgi Gachechiladze, known as Utsnobi (meaning "unknown" or "stranger"), the brother of opposition leader and 2008 presidential candidate Levan Gachechiladze.

Gachechiladze reportedly lived in one of the cells for several months as a protest of Saakashvili's government in 2007. He was one of four activists who began a hunger strike to demand early parliamentary elections. He was also injured during the protests.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Georgians seek to enjoy freedoms they know are available elsewhere in the world. "There is no justice," Archil said. "We want freedom of expression. People were beaten in the streets last night. We have two television stations that are government controlled."

A large banner on the protesters' main street stage features photos of five Georgians reportedly killed by security police during previous protests. As George said:

People can't speak or protest. People are beaten if they are not in groups. Many people--80 examples--were hurt in this week. They are beaten because they were sitting here, at night. The television did not show this. They (the reporters) were frightened. They can't report this because they are threatened.

The number of protesters in the street before parliament swelled at about 3 p.m. Wednesday, covering Rustaveli Avenue, as people gathered to hear speeches from the stage. As the speakers took their turns, men strung their cell frames with ropes to mimic prison cell bars.

Opinions about Saakashvili heightened when his government invaded South Ossetia in the summer of 2008, claiming it was a "breakaway province." Some speculated the Ossetia invasion was calculated to draw attention away from his sagging popular support.

In response to the Ossetia invasion, Russian troops entered Georgia (August 2008). Former Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze told the Georgian Times on 13 April, "If I were Saakashvili, I would have resigned. He has no right to be the president of the country after making so many mistakes and shedding so many tears and so much blood."

George, the young protest supporter, said, "The opposition's face is the people. We want free elections. We don't want one leader. We are the leaders. We must have leaders as they do in Europe, where the leaders are the people, who are not kings."

Archil agreed. "We want parliamentary governance, with elections that don't create monarchs or kings, but a full parliament."

NATO to resume formal contacts with Russia

NATO and Russia are set to resume formal contacts following an eight-month freeze caused by last year's war between Russia and Georgia.

Diplomats say ambassadors from Russia and NATO's 28 member nations will discuss a possible meeting of foreign ministers next month. The talks are being held under the framework of the NATO-Russia Council, a panel set up to improve relations between the former Cold War foes.
Formal ties were suspended following the five-day Georgian war. NATO nations accused Moscow of using disproportionate force to eject Georgian forces that had occupied the capital of the breakaway province of South Ossetia.

Still, relations have improved significantly since then. NATO and Russia have cooperated closely in areas such as the war in Afghanistan and anti-piracy patrols off Somalia.

Saakavili's "Order No. 2" Georgian Plots?

At the bottom of the recent demonstrations that have packed the capital city of Tbilisi with tens of thousands of protesters demanding the resignation of Georgian President Mikheil Saakavili is an investigation by the European Union (EU) as to who started last summer's war between Georgia and Russia. According to a report in the German newspaper Der Spiegel, "A secret document may prove that the Georgian president had planned a war of aggression in South Ossetia."

The Russians charge that Georgian troops launched a surprise attack on South Ossetia last Aug. 7, while Saakavili claims that Georgia was merely defending itself from an invasion by 150 Russian tanks through the Roki Tunnel connecting South Ossetia with North Ossetia. The latter is part of Russia.

But an investigation by the EU has uncovered "Order No. 2" dated Aug. 7, that says that Georgia was not defending itself but acting to "reestablish constitutional order" in South Ossetia. The EU is closely examining an Aug. 7 television interview in which Georgian Gen. Mamuka Kurashjvili used just those words. President Saakavili announced Aug. 8 that "Most of South Ossetia's territory is liberated." He did not claim that Georgia was acting in "self-defense" until Aug. 11. By that time Russian troops had driven the Georgian Army out of South Ossetia and were within 31 miles of Tbilisi. The war lasted five days.

The general's remarks, reports Der Spiegel, "indicate that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili was not repelling ‘Russian aggression,' as he continues to claim to this day, but was planning a war of aggression."

The EU commission questioned the Russian deputy head of the general staff, Anatoly Nogovitsyn, who said that the Russians had intercepted Order No. 2, and that it indeed contained the phrase about reestablishing constitutional order. "If the order, which Russian intelligence intercepted, is authentic, it would prove that Saakashvili lied," says Der Spiegel.
The investigation found that Georgia had massed 12,000 troops and 75 tanks on the South Ossetian border for the Aug. 7 attack. The Russians tanks did not transit the tunnel until Aug. 8. While the Commission is also critical of the Russians for meddling in South Ossetia and not preventing South Ossetians from destroying some Georgian villages, "the EU investigation seems to be more of a problem for Tbilisi than for Moscow," according to Der Spiegel.
The Georgians refuse to turn over Order No. 2 to the commission, claiming it is a state secret. And Georgian Minister Temur Yakobashvili charges that the investigation is being funded by Russian gas giant, Gazprom. The commissioners , who reject the charges, are Swiss diplomat Heidi Tagliavini, and former German ambassador to Georgia, Uwe Schramm. Former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer advises the commission.

"More and more former allies of Saakashvili are now blaming the authoritarian president for the war and calling for his resignation," says Der Spiegel. Indeed, Nino Burjanadze, who helped lead the revolution that put Saakashvili into office, and Irakli Alasania, former Georgian ambassador to the United Nations, are leading the opposition demonstrations.

So far, Saakashvili has not unleashed the police as he did in breaking up similar rallies in 2007, but he arrested 10 opposition members on the eve of the current demonstrations, accusing them of planning a violent overthrow of the government. The charge is based on a secret tape that records a man identified as a "coordinator" for Burjanadze's Democratic Movement-United Georgia Party saying that the former speaker is planning to provoke violence. Burjanadze denies knowing the so-called "coordinator" and says he has no position of authority in her organization.
Saakashvili, who came to power in 2003, says he has no intention of resigning and will finish out his term in 2013. But demonstrators say they will not disperse until he steps down and calls an early election.

The beleaguered president says he is willing to negotiate with the opposition, however most the people camped out in front of the Parliament say that the call for "talks" is a ploy. "He says things like this only for the U.S. and Europe," farmer Amiran Tsertskhladze told The New York Times, "but no one here believes he really wants dialogue."

Sobering thought for the week: Only the opposition of Germany and France kept the Bush Administration from adding Georgia to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) back in 2007. While the Obama Administration is not currently pushing for Georgia to join the alliance, the country's membership is still on the agenda. Had Georgia been a NATO member during the Russia-Georgia War, it would have triggered Article 5 of the treaty requiring member states to come to Georgia's aid-and NATO might have been snookered into a war with Russia.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Russia criticizes NATO Georgia war games, urges boycott

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Monday criticized NATO exercises in Georgia next month as harmful and said other countries should join Russia in boycotting them.

NATO had invited Russia to send observers to the near month-long exercises that will involve 1,300 troops from NATO members and other countries.

"Of course, Russia will not be participating and advises other countries against doing so," Lavrov told a news conference. "We believe that these exercises, in the current environment, are harmful.

Diplomatic links between Tbilisi and Moscow were cut after last August's brief war over the breakaway region of South Ossetia. Moscow also opposes Georgia's efforts to win membership of the western military alliance.

NATO says the scenario for the exercises that run from May 6 to June 1, will be a crisis response operation and poses no security threat to Russia.

Russia has already protested against the exercises by calling off a planned meeting of senior military officials in Brussels early next month, although formal political talks at ambassadorial and ministerial level are still going ahead.

"Rather than hold exercises in Georgia, you need to make the current Georgian regime fulfill its obligations," Lavrov said, referring to an August ceasefire agreement brokered by French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Central Asia's Kazakhstan has ruled out participating in the exercises, saying its military forces will be too busy to join them.

The row has muddied separate efforts by Moscow and Washington to improve relations that soured in recent years, partially over NATO interest in admitting ex-Soviet states like Georgia and Ukraine as members.

Fixing ties with NATO is part of a broader Moscow effort to improve relations with the United States, which have reached their post-Cold War lows under the previous U.S. administration of George W. Bush.

Sokhumi, Moscow to Sign Border Agreement

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Abkhaz leader Sergey Bagapsh will sign an agreement on cooperation in border protection on April 30, the Abkhaz news agency Apsnipress reported.

The Abkhaz delegation led by Bagapsh will arrive in Moscow on April 28.

Abkhaz Foreign Minister Sergey Shamba said that the agreement would be one more step towards boosting the relations with Russia, which "actually is a guarantor of peace and stability in the region."

Russia's President, Dmitry Medvedev, gave his go-ahead to signing of border cooperation treaties with Georgia's breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia on March 20

Monday, April 27, 2009

Georgia protests continue, demand president quit

Protesters in Georgia are vowing to continue trying to interfere with the work of President Mikhail Saakashvili, whose resignation they are demanding.

About 2,000 protesters gathered Sunday outside parliament to continue demonstrations that began April 9. Opposition leaders told the crowd they will continue "the hunt for the president" _ efforts to prevent Saakashvili from traveling around the capital and holding meetings.

Demonstrators also gathered outside the presidential residence and the national television studios. An opposition leader, Georgy Khaindrava, told journalists "not to be propagandists for the criminal Saakashvili regime."

Opponents accuse Saakashvili of concentrating power in his own hands and mishandling last year's war with Russia.

Council of Europe to discuss Georgia - South Ossetia war

The Council of Europe (CE) is to review the report on presidential elections in Macedonia at the spring session of the Parliamentary Assembly that begins Monday in Strasbourg.

Finnish President Tarja Halonnen and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapetaro are expected to make an address to participants of the spring session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE).

The main topics of discussion will include the humanitarian consequences of the war between Georgia and Russia, protection of human rights in emergency situations, the situation of human rights defenders in Council of Europe member-states, and action to combat gender-based violations of human rights.

On the first day of the session there will be a short celebration to mark the 60th anniversary of the Council of Europe.

South Ossetia: life after war

South Ossetia is bouncing back, trying to restore destroyed homes, and healing its psychological wounds. However, many residents fear the current peace won't last long.

Seventy per cent of capital Tskhinval is still in ruins, following the war with Georgia. But, life is going on. Eight months since the war ended, this destruction still reminds the locals of Georgian aggression - and it is no surprise that even children here have only one subject to focus on.

12-year old Serezha Kachmazov, like many of his friends, stayed in a basement during the shelling. On hearing the sound, he burst out laughing.

"What was I supposed to do?" he said. "Cry? No, I am a man... I will not cry, because I am a man."

Olga Mikhailidi, his teacher, says it was a psychological reaction from the stress of the situation. He was laughing instead of crying, she says - and this behavior still happens with him. The teacher says children have become aggressive since the war.

"We were making a snowman in the winter, and I saw how children began to destroy it. That's how destructive energy comes out... It's all horrible and scary, of course," says the teacher.
Natalia Suprunova is the only practicing psychologist in South Ossetia. Her working place is in the tent, which she has to share with some other departments of the ministry she works in. Natalia talks about the residents' disorders she comes across daily.

"Memory loss, speech disorders... After the war they don't sleep well, have become very aggressive. Many of them have experienced things that others don't experience in their lifetime," Suprunova said.

Timur Tskhovrebov, a local resident, has shown the RT team the place where he hit a Georgian tank last August. He says his life was constantly in danger, and he is happy to be alive. His country was in a state of war with Georgia for twenty years, he says, and finally took the victory.
"If we had lost, I would have died. I paid a high price, and knowing that this was not in vain really helps me. I am still in euphoria, despite all the trouble," said the man.
People here continue to suffer from the aftermath of the war. Many of them keep their papers at hand, should they need to make a quick escape. The society is divided into two parts, the psychologists say: those who hope for peace and those who believe there will be a repeat of Georgian aggression. But one thing is for sure - the consequences will last a while, the doctors say.


Friday, April 24, 2009

RF, S Ossetia, Georgia agree to establish 24-hour hotline - RF general

Representatives of Russia, South Ossetia and Georgia have agreed to establish a 24-hour hotline.
They met in the Georgian village of Ergneti, near the border with South Ossetia, on Thursday for the first time after the events in the Caucasus last August.

"Officials have been appointed for this purpose," first deputy chief of Russia's General Staff Lieutenant-General Sergei Antonov told Itar-Tass.

In his words, the parties agreed "to meet twice a month as the need arises and in the state of emergency". "The next meeting is planning to be held in the Georgian village of Ergneti in the beginning of December. A responsible and non-easy work should be done and their effectiveness will depend on political will and high professionalism of all participants in the meeting," Antonov said.

According to the general, the results of the joint work will be thoroughly studied. Antonov said, "New recommendations will be needed to increase the effectiveness of the work on preventing any incidents." "Special attention will be riveted to objective information given after incidents. Lives of peoples depend on this work. We call on all participants in the meeting to resolve problems responsibly."

Antonov noted that Russia's position is to ease tension and restore trust between South Ossetia and Georgia. "It's such approach that was proposed by our colleagues during today's meeting - Russia, South Ossetia, Georgia, the EU and with the participation of OSCE representatives," he said.

"We seek to adequately react on the situation in the field of security, including joint briefings on a regular basis, ensure security of important facilities, counteract crimes, provide humanitarian aid and solve other problems that could strengthen stability and security, prevent incidents and react on them," Antonov said.

"The meeting is being held within the framework of the Geneva agreements on the normalisation of the situation in the area adjacent to the South Ossetian-Georgian border and on the improvement of closer contacts between Russia and the European Union in order to settle the situation in this zone," the Russian military explained.

"We consider an important political event the agreements reached at the Geneva consultations and designed to prevent and react on incidents. This is an important practical result that will facilitate stability and security in the region, i.e. in the border area - between South Ossetia and Georgia," he said.

South Ossetia's delegation is led by presidential deputy plenipotentiary representative for the post-conflict settlement Merab Chigoyev and Georgia is represented by head of the Interior Ministry's press department Shota Utiashvili, and the EU delegation is led by head of the EU Monitoring Mission in Georgia Haber Hansjorg.

Russia, Georgia, S. Ossetia meet

Russia, Georgia and the breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia agreed Thursday to set up a hotline to deal with emergencies.

Representatives of the three met for the first time since the Russian incursion into Georgia last summer, Itar-Tass reported. The meeting was held in the Georgian village of Ergneti near the South Ossetian border.

Lt. Gen. Sergei Antonov, the first deputy chief of the Russian general staff, said the delegates agreed to hold meetings as needed. The next scheduled meeting is set for early December, also in Ergneti.

"We seek to adequately react on the situation in the field of security, including joint briefings on a regular basis, ensure security of important facilities, counteract crimes, provide humanitarian aid and solve other problems that could strengthen stability and security, prevent incidents and react on them," Antonov said.

Russia intervened when the Georgian government tried to bring South Ossetia back under its control. Russia later recognized South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent countries, although no other government has done so.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Russia, Georgia, Separatists To Start New Talks - EU Monitors

Security officials from Georgia, Russia and the rebel region of South Ossetia will start talks with international observers on Thursday aimed at preventing violent incidents, E.U. monitors said.
The planned talks on the border between Georgian- and South Ossetian-controled territory will be the first such meeting to be held on the ground since last summer's war between Russia and Georgia.

The meeting comes after the three sides agreed to hold regular talks on "incident prevention" during internationally mediated negotiations in Geneva in February.

"We're very pleased that the arrangements have been made to get all the parties together for the first time," said Steve Bird, a spokesman for the European Union mission observing a ceasefire that ended the war.

"The long-term goal is to have regular weekly meetings to discuss incidents and to try to build up security and stability in the region," he said.

The meeting will include senior officials from all sides and international monitors from the E.U. and Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Bird said.

Eventually talks will be expanded to include the U.N. and representatives of another breakaway Georgian region, Abkhazia, he said.

Sporadic violence has continued around South Ossetia since the E.U.-brokered ceasefire was signed in August, ending a brief conflict over the rebel region.

Russian forces poured into Georgia in August in response to a Georgian military attempt to retake South Ossetia, which broke free of Tbilisi's control in the early 1990s and had received extensive backing from Moscow for years.

Russian forces occupied swathes of territory and bombed targets across Georgia before mostly withdrawing to within South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which Moscow recognized as independent states.

A new round of talks aimed at preventing another war is to take place in Geneva on May 18-19.

Georgia opposition tries to revive street campaign

Tents in the streets paralysed traffic in central Tbilisi and hundreds of cars crawled in convoy to the Georgian capital on Wednesday to breathe fresh life into an opposition campaign to oust the president.

Several thousand people, car horns blaring, answered opposition calls to travel to Tbilisi in a bid to boost numbers as the street campaign against President Mikheil Saakashvili nears its third week.

Opposition leaders are demanding the 41-year-old leader step down over his record on democracy and last year's disastrous war with Russia.

But Saakashvili has refused, and the authorities -- wary of repeating a 2007 police crackdown against the latest mass rallies against the president -- are observing patience with the protesters despite traffic chaos in the capital.

Turnout has dwindled to just a few thousand from the peak of 60,000 when the campaign began on April 9. But opposition leaders deny the campaign is running out of steam.

Supporters have set up tents and improvised 'prison cells' down the central Rustaveli Avenue past parliament and other state buildings, forcing drivers to take to the backstreets.
The opposition promises to keep rallying and blocking streets until Saakashvili steps down, but analysts question the unity of the more than a dozen opposition leaders involved or their ability to draw enough people to force the president out.

"Much more people wanted to join us, but we decided that we would face difficulties with their accommodation in Tbilisi," Irakly Melashvili, opposition National Forum leader, said of the effort to draw supporters from outside the capital.

Critics accuse Saakashvili of monopolising power and exerting pressure on the judiciary and media since coming to power on the back of the 2003 "Rose Revolution".

Last year's five-day war with Russia, when Moscow crushed a Georgian assault on South Ossetia, emboldened critics who say Saakashvili -- perceived by some Georgians as brash and impulsive -- has made too many mistakes to stay in power until 2013.

But analysts say his ruling United National Movement retains wide support and his position appears strong, despite the defection of some top allies and several cabinet reshuffles.
They say the government is biding its time until more moderate opposition leaders lose patience with the street campaign and enter talks with the government.

Russia's Protest Against Nato Military Training In Georgia Is Element Of "exchange" In Moscow-washington Dialogue: Experts

Experts say Russia's protests against NATO military training in Georgia is another element of "exchange" in a dialogue between West and Moscow.

"Moscow increases number of negotiating positions with the U.S. as agenda of mutual relations are being formed actively. Sides seek subjects for exchange," Russian expert on security Mikhail Remizov said.

It is planned to hold NATO military training in Georgia, which is striving for the alliance, in early May. NATO planned to involve 1,300 military men from 19 countries to the training and hold them at 20 kilometers east of Tbilisi to improve coordination amongst the alliance members and its partners.

Russia proposed NATO to cancel or postpone military training in Georgia. Russia considers the military training to be provocation in a period of anti-president demonstrations.

"I asked the NATO Secretary General [...] to postpone or fully cancel the training," Russian Special Envoy to NATO Dmitriy Rogozin told Reuter and added that Russia is against of NATO training near its borders.

However alliance representatives are not going to cancel military training.

NATO will not refuse to hold military exercises in Georgia in early May, despite Russia's address to cancel or postpone it, NATO Press Secretary Simone De Manso said.

"The exercises have been planned for a long time and it will go ahead as planned," De Manso told Trend News in a telephone conversation from Brussels.

Analysts say Russia's protest against alliance's military training in Georgia is a ground for exchanges with the U.S.

Military training can play a role of trump card in West-Moscow talks, British expert on South Caucasus Ziba Norman said. "There is a genuine need for cooperation with Russia regarding supply routes for military operations in Afghanistan, and Russia may have calculated that this can be used as a bargaining tool in an attempt to prevent the NATO exercises in Georgia," Director of the London-based Transatlantic and Caucasus Studies Institute Norman told Trend News via email.

Remizov said Moscow is increasing number of negotiating positions with the U.S. as agenda of mutual relations are being formed actively. "As a subject for "exchange" the problem of military cooperation with Georgia was more important than even missile defense system in Europe as prospects of military bases in Georgia are more significant for Russia," Russian National Strategy Institute Director Mikhail Remizov told Trend News over telephone from Moscow.

Western observers say Russia's step is also demonstration of regional influence in the Caucasus.
Georgia falls within an area that Russia considers to be its private preserve, an area in which it believes it has the right to assert its influence, Norman said. "Georgia is of greater strategic importance to Russia. The hasty recognition of Abkhazia's independence and the subsequent development of a Russian military presence on the Black Sea coast are clear examples of just how critical Russia believes this region is," Norman said.

"Moscow's protest is part of a strategy to weaken NATO, so if these exercises were to be abandoned then NATO would lose credibility," Norman said.

Russian expert said not military decision of NATO member states, but diplomatic situation is principal in this situation. "Moscow wants the regime in Georgia to be diplomatically out of the zone of military cooperation with the West because this regime does not hide that it is concerned with the possible military revenge," Remizov said. Moscow's protests are simply policy to prevent military cooperation, he said.