August 25, 2008
By Helena Bedwell and Celestine Bohlen
Russia’s parliament unanimously called on President Dmitry Medvedev to recognize the independence of two breakaway Georgian regions that sparked Russia’s first foreign military incursion since the Soviet era. Boris Gryzlov, speaker of the State Duma, the lower house, told reporters in Moscow today that he expects Medvedev to respond to the lawmakers’ appeal regarding South Ossetia and Abkhazia “in a very short time,” the Interfax news service reported.
Medvedev, who has final say on the matter, has said Russia supports the regions’ aspirations, though he has stopped short of formally recognizing them. U.S. President George W. Bush, who has insisted they remain part of Georgia, is dispatching Vice President Dick Cheney next week to visit the country as part of a trip to the region.
The regions, which broke away from Georgia in wars in the early 1990s, have cited Kosovo’s Feb. 17 declaration of independence from Serbia as a precedent. Russia opposed Kosovo’s independence, arguing that it violated Serbian sovereignty. This could come back to haunt Moscow if Medvedev endorses Abkhazia’s and South Ossetia’s right to self-determination.
Part of Russia’s concern is its own restless ethnic minorities. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the North Caucasus, a patchwork of rival nationalities, has been beset by conflicts, including two separatist wars in Chechnya and other clashes involving Muslim and Christian groups.
“I don’t see the Russian Federation taking on this headache,” said Vadim Mukhanov, senior researcher at the Center for Caucasian Research at the Moscow State Institute for International Relations, ruling out the prospect of Russia annexing either region.
South Ossetia’s foreign minister, Murat Dzhioyev, said the region won’t seek to join Russia before it achieves international recognition of its statehood, Interfax reported.
The U.S. views recognition of the two regions as “unacceptable.”
“Russia needs to respect the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Georgia,” State Department spokesman Robert Wood told reporters in Washington today. “That is worked into a number of international agreements, so again, we would characterize that as unacceptable.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said today’s vote caused her “great concern” and that she expected Medvedev “will not sign off” on their independence since doing so would violate a European Union-brokered cease-fire concluded on Aug. 16.
Others said the backlash over Kosovo would prompt Medvedev to support independence for the enclaves.
“Medvedev will recognize both regions,” said Alexander Rahr, a Russia expert at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin. “There’s no way out,” he said. “This is a consequence of the recognition of Kosovo by the West and Western policy in the Balkans.”
Medvedev didn’t address recognition in an appearance today with his Moldovan counterpart Vladimir Voronin in Sochi, about 100 kilometers (62 miles) along the Black Sea coast from the Abkhaz capital Sukhumi. Medvedev said the conflict in Georgia “should be a warning to all,” and that Russia will broker talks to resolve similar tensions between Moldova and the separatist region of Transnistria.
With Russian forces in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the political outcome of the Georgia conflict is unlikely to satisfy Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. The U.S. and Europe have backed a reintegration of the breakaway regions into Georgia. After Georgia’s advance on the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali on Aug. 7 and 8, which triggered the Russian incursion, that is less likely than ever, analysts say.
“Russia has had wars off and on in the region for a decade,” said James Collins, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia who heads the Russia and Eurasia program at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.“They want the capacity to control stability in the Caucasus, and they don’t think Georgia is a good steward.”
“This isn’t 1921 anymore,” Saakashvili said during a government meeting in the central city of Gori, referring to the occupation of Tbilisi by the Red Army. “Russia isn’t a mediator any longer in Georgia’s separatist regions, a role it played de facto before. Now the Russian government is trying to legalize its actions and to drag us back into the Soviet Union,” he said in televised comments.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who brokered the cease- fire, called an emergency EU summit for Sept. 1 to discuss the Georgian crisis. Sarkozy and Bush have insisted on a complete withdrawal of troops that entered Georgia after Aug. 6.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said it will send 100 unarmed observers into the conflict zone in the coming weeks.
“Any kind of unilateral attempt to change the situation is fraught with problems, which is what Russia has been warning about since Kosovo,” Collins said.
Today’s vote “is yet another escalation of the geo- political tensions in central and eastern Europe and is likely to further worsen the relationship between Russia and the West,” said Lars Christensen, head of emerging markets research at Danske Bank in Copenhagen.
Underscoring cooling ties with the West, Russia’s envoy to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Dmitry Rogozin, said today that Russia is considering proposals “to alter the volume, quality and timetable” of cooperation with NATO. Alliance foreign ministers on Aug. 19 downgraded relations with Russia.
The relationship has “sharply deteriorated, and we are not to blame for that,” Medvedev said today.
Russia’s bid to join the World Trade Organization may also be affected. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was cited by Interfax as saying Russia should freeze some agreements it made during talks to join the WTO.
Putin said he agreed with a proposal by First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov to continue negotiations on joining the commercial group while suspending agreements that run counter to Russia’s interests, the news service reported.
Russia, the largest economy outside the WTO, first applied for membership more than 15 years ago.