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Russia, Georgia are latest countries in a string of conflicts

Sunday, August 17, 2008 | 10:00 a.m. CDT

Loory: To what extent is the week-old war in the Caucasus between the tiny Republic of Georgia and Russia really a conflict between the United States and its former Cold War enemy? The U.S. has won an ally in Georgia. Georgia has sent 2,000 troops to Iraq; an oil pipeline was built through Georgia rather than through Russia to carry Caucasian and Central Asian oil to the Western world. A resurgent Russia under Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev wants to establish its primacy over the area that was once called the Soviet Union. French President Nicolas Sarkozy, the current president of the European Union, flew to Moscow to broker a cease-fire between the two countries, and he thought he had reached a six-point agreement. Within hours after the document was signed, the Russian army continued to advance. On Wednesday, the Russian military command that had taken control of the Georgian city of Gori said it was beginning to turn control of that city to Georgian police. That turnover broke down. Are the Russian troops withdrawing from Gori or are they digging in?

Giorgi Lomsadze, freelance reporter, Eurasianews.net, Tbilisi, Georgia: Russian troops are definitely not withdrawing from the town of Gori. I just came back from Gori. The Russian troops have arranged a makeshift blockade outside the city, and I could see smoke and fire which was coming from the north part of the city. While I was there, I saw refugees, some on foot, walking towards Tbilisi. Some were trying to flag down cars. It is very difficult to understand what is going on right now.

Loory: Russia signed an agreement with Georgia that seemed to say Russia agreed to pull its troops out of Georgia proper and even the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. It seems the Russians never intended to adhere to that agreement. Were they lying, was there confusion?

Nabi Abdullaev, senior writer, The Moscow Times, Moscow: The agreement signed Tuesday was vaguely worded. It does not assess any timeline for the withdrawal of troops. Thursday, the Russian defense minister said the troops will be withdrawn within the next two days. Also, this agreement never said the troops would leave the separatist provinces. It said troops will leave the territory of Georgia proper.

Loory: How does this go down with the European Union? Do they believe this withdrawal?

Ahto Lobjakas, correspondent, Radio Free Europe, Brussels, Belgium: The EU negotiated this declaration which produced the six-point terms and makes it quite clear the Russians have retained the rights to implement additional security measures without any specifications. The EU clearly understands the Russians are in control as peacekeepers until international peacekeepers arrive. This is not possible until the U.N. Security Council passes a resolution, and of course, Russia has veto on that Council. So, it seems the EU has accepted the Russians are in control and can do pretty much whatever they want.

Loory: As the broker of this whole arrangement, does Nicolas Sarkozy accept that?

Lobjakas: His role was more akin to a messenger. The Russians dictated the terms, which he then took to Tblisi. Sarkozy told Georgia that what he had was the best he could get.

Loory: This is not going down well in Washington. President Bush is making demands on Russia to withdraw its troops. Is this good diplomacy and good international politics?

Peter Spiegel, Pentagon correspondent, Los Angeles Times, Washington, D.C.: The noises coming out of Washington have gradually changed over the last several days. On Wednesday, we heard the president come out with strong language that really raises the stakes, accusing the Russians of violating the cease-fire. He also ordered a U.S. humanitarian mission. U.S. support of the EU mission is wavering a bit, owing to the weight of American conservatives. The Georgians have been good at lobbying in Washington and really getting the ear of some decision makers in the White House.

Loory: President Saakashvili of Georgia seems to think this humanitarian military aid the president is sending is going to be more than humanitarian.

Spiegel: He certainly is goading the Americans into it. The rhetoric doesn't really match with the deeds on the ground. As it stands now, the actual U.S. military personnel accompanying this mission is very small. Saakashvili and Bush are trying to make it a bigger deal than it is.

Loory: The Georgians made the first moves when they sent their troops in to South Ossetia and attacked the capital. Did Saakashvili really think the Georgians could take on the South Ossetians without getting Russian troops involved?

Lomsadze: There was an exchange of fire going on in the region well before this started, so both sides have been accusing each other of provocation. There was a Russian military buildup on the Russian border close to South Ossetia weeks before this started. Saakashvili has been criticized for doing this; he saw a Russian trap but thought he could quickly bring the region under control. All talk and diplomacy here has been failing because Russia has effectively blocked any attempt of Georgian authorities to talk directly to the South Ossetian government.

Spiegel: That very debate is going on in Washington right now as well. The public face of the Bush administration has been scolding Russia for what it did, but behind the scenes there is complete exasperation with Saakashvili and his decision to send in troops. On the day the Georgians moved in, the State Department was on the phone with Saakashvili saying do not take this bait.

Loory: Saakashvili is educated in the U.S. and has had great support here. Is there any possibility the Bush administration is going to turn its back on him?

Spiegel: No, absolutely not. The Bush administration has received criticism for their democratization agenda by focusing on personalizing democracy movements. When the leader turns out to be less than we expected, we're without a second option.

Loory: Is what is going on in the Caucasus region right now a manifestation of Cold War renewal?

Spiegel: The Bush administration has tried to play that down. There are still a large number of bilateral issues the administration needs the Russians on, not the least of which is Iran. The Bush administration is concerned that what happened in Georgia is going to poison the rest of the relationship. If the Russians do actually try to move into Tbilisi, do try to oust Saakashvili, then we could see a ratcheting up of the situation.

Loory: How much is oil an issue in what is going on in Georgia now?

Lobjakas: The European Union is trying to put together a pipeline directly from Turkey to Austria. The oil and gas comes from the Caspian Sea through Georgia, circumventing Russia. This has been a very serious thorn in Russia's side for a long time. These pipeline issues are high on the agenda on all sides.

Loory: How does the Russian government perceive the American activities in the Caucasus?

Abdullaev: The Russian government feels the country is being encircled. It definitely doesn't want Georgia and the Ukraine to also become part of NATO, as the United States is a staunch proponent of.

Loory: The 20th century was the bloodiest in history. As it came to an end and the Cold War ended, there was hope a worldwide period of peace was on the way. That has been far from the case. We have been faced with wars big and small throughout the world, and the United States has been involved in most of them.

Producers of Global Journalist are Missouri School of Journalism graduate students Jared Gassen, and Catherine Wolf. The transcriber is Pat Kelley.

 

 

 


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