Defiant Russians Accuse US of Provocation
As visiting Vice President Dick Cheney condemned what he described Russia’s “illegitimate, unilateral attempt” to change Georgia’s borders, Russian politicians said the U.S. was provoking the volatile region.
Konstantin Kosachev, head of the international relations committee of the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, declared Thursday that Cheney had been forging anti-Russian alliances along the country’s borders.
The U.S. has been fuelling anti-Russian sentiment not only in Georgia, but also in Ukraine, Poland and the Baltic states, the powerful lawmaker told journalists in Moscow, adding that Washington was evidently trying to pressure Russia.
During his one-day visit to Georgia Thursday, Cheney challenged President Dmitry Medvedev’s view that Russia has “privileged interests” in ex-Soviet states. The vice-president said his visit underlined America’s “deep, abiding interest” in the region.
Cheney similarly responded to Medvedev’s announcement, made during an interview with Italian television on Tuesday, that Moscow regards Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili as a “political corpse.”
“You have been fearless in response to the occupation of your country and steadfast in your principles,” Cheney praised the Georgian leader. “We respect you.”
And, confronting Russia’s recognition of Georgia’s breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states, Cheney reiterated America’s “strong commitment to Georgia’s territorial integrity.”
Russia invaded Georgian territory last month after Saakashvili mounted a military offensive against pro-Russian separatists in South Ossetia.
Moscow argues that it has since withdrawn most of its forces from Georgia under a ceasefire deal mediated by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, but says it will keep a limited number of troops in “buffer zones” near the breakaway region until international monitors are deployed.
Cheney’s visit to Georgia was sandwiched between stops in Azerbaijan on Wednesday and Ukraine on Friday.
Azerbaijan is a key hub in a crucial pipeline carrying Caspian oil to Western markets via Georgia and Turkey – a route that bypasses Russian territory and so denies Russia transit revenues and control over the energy supplies.
Ukraine, like Georgia, has angered Russia by seeking membership in NATO, and its pro-Western president has voiced concern that Moscow may try to destabilize the country following its intervention in Georgia.
NATO leaders at a summit last April disagreed over whether to allow the two to begin membership plans. The decision will be reviewed by NATO foreign ministers in December.
Cheney again pledged American support for the move, saying after meeting with Saakashvili, “Georgia will be in our alliance.”
Last week, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in a CNN interview hinted at a clandestine American plot to trigger a conflict in the Caucasus, to benefit the Republican presidential campaign.
While stopping short of echoing his mentor’s suspicions, Medvedev in the Italian television interview did accuse the U.S. of helping to arm Georgia and of giving Saakashvili “carte-blanche for any action, including military action.”
He also said that calls to punish Russia by expelling it from the Group of Eight leading industrialized countries should be seen in the context of the U.S. presidential campaign. Sen. John McCain has been calling for Russia’s expulsion from the G8 for several years, a position he repeated after Russia’s intervention in Georgia.
Meanwhile a Russian opposition party headed by former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov warned that the government policies would result in economic crises and international isolation, and urged the country’s leadership to return to dialogue.
But the dominant political sentiment appears to be a defiant one, with lawmakers showing little concern about Western protests.
In the face of repeated U.S. calls for the Kremlin to reverse its recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, parliament’s upper house, the Federation Council, on Thursday signed a formal cooperation with the parliament of Abkhazia.
Federation Council speaker Sergei Mironov told his Abkhaz counterpart, Nugzar Ashuba, that a process of international recognition of Abkhazia was irreversible.
Kosachev predicted that more nations would recognized the two Caucasian breakaway regions than those that recognized Kosovo’s independence from Serbia earlier this year.
Kosovo’s independence, which was announced over strong Russian objections, has been recognized by 46 mostly Western countries. Apart from Russia, only Nicaragua has to date recognized South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Nearly half of Russian respondents in a new opinion poll said they do not believe the country faces any serious international isolation as a result of its actions.
In the VTSIOM poll released Thursday, 47 percent of respondents agreed that relations with the West would suffer a brief downturn and then return to normal. Only 18 percent of those polled foresaw long-term damage.
Earlier this week, the European Union suspended talks with Russia on a partnership agreement but refrained from stronger sanctions. Medvedev and Sarkozy are to meet in Moscow next Monday to discuss the crisis.
(CNSNews International Editor Patrick Goodenough contributed to this report.)