August 26, 2008

Russia Votes to Back Freedom for Enclaves Move Adds to Tensions With the West

The Russian Parliament voted unanimously Monday to urge President Dmitri Medvedev to recognize the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the two separatist enclaves that at the center of recent fighting, further stoking tensions between Moscow and the West.

The votes by both chambers of Parliament, which were not legally binding, come as the White House announced that Vice President Dick Cheney would travel to three former Soviet republics next week: Georgia, Ukraine and Azerbaijan.

"Russia's historic role of the guarantor of peace in the Caucasus has increased," said Boris Gryzlov, speaker of the lower chamber, the State Duma. "The Caucasus has always been and will remain the zone of Russia's strategic interests."

Reaction from the West was swift. The United States said Russian recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia "would be unacceptable."

"Russia needs to respect the territorial integrity of Georgia," said a State Department spokesman, Robert Wood.

The European Union immediately declared after the Russian vote that South Ossetia and Abkhazia should remain in Georgia. Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany said that recognizing the two separatist regions would create a "very difficult, critical situation" in regard to Georgia's territorial integrity.

Medvedev, who was at his summer residence in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, did not immediately comment on the votes in Parliament.

Cheney's office described his trip, which begins Sept. 2 and also includes a stop in Italy, where the United States has a major base, only in the broadest terms, saying President George W. Bush wants his No.2 to consult with key partners on matters of mutual interest.

Some analysts say the Russian Parliament's blessing of the Georgian separatists gives the Kremlin extra leverage as Russia tries to reassert its influence in the former Soviet republics and resist moves by Georgia and Ukraine to join NATO.

Currently, neither Russia nor any other United Nations member recognizes the two provinces' independence claims. Both won de- facto independence in the 1990s after wars with Georgia and have survived since with Russia's financial, political and military support.

The Abkhazian leader, Sergei Bagapsh, told the Russian Parliament on Monday that neither Abkhazia "nor South Ossetia will be part of the Georgian state."

Despite their desire for independence, one or both regions could eventually be absorbed into Russia.

"Ossetians have no doubts - we'll only be with Russia," said Robert Bestayev, 36, a South Ossetian military communications officer in Tskhinvali, the regional capital.

Critics of Russia say the conflict in Georgia heralds a new, worrying era in which an increasingly assertive Kremlin has shown itself ready to resort to military force outside its borders.

After Georgia tried to reassert control of South Ossetia by force Aug. 7, Russian troops overwhelmed the Georgians, and for nearly two weeks occupied positions deep within Georgia. Most Russian forces withdrew Friday, although some troops continue to operate near the Black Sea port of Poti and just outside the boundaries of the breakaway regions.

President Nicolas Sarkozy of France has called a special meeting of EU leaders for next Monday to discuss aid to Georgia and future relations with Russia. France holds the 27-member bloc's rotating presidency.

The French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, however, said Monday that the EU was not considering any sanctions against Moscow.

Ukraine, like Georgia, has angered Moscow by courting the West and seeking NATO membership. President Viktor Yushchenko said last week that the Russian offensive demonstrated that joining NATO was the only way Ukraine could ensure its security.

In a show staged for Russian eyes, Ukraine paraded tanks and other military hardware during Independence Day celebrations Sunday for the first time since 2001.

Medvedev signaled for calm in the face of Western criticism.

NATO has suspended operations of its framework for cooperation with Russia over the Georgia crisis, but Medvedev said Monday that there would be "nothing frightening" for Russia if the alliance were to sever ties altogether.

On Sunday, a U.S. Navy destroyer loaded with humanitarian aid reached the Georgian port of Batumi, bringing baby food, milk, bottled water and a message of support for an embattled ally.

The McFaul, a guided missile destroyer carrying about 55 tons of humanitarian aid, was the first of three U.S. ships scheduled to arrive this week.

But the deputy chief of Russia's general staff suggested Monday that the arrival of U.S. and other NATO warships in the Black Sea would only increase tensions. Russia shares the sea with the NATO members Turkey, Romania and Bulgaria, as well as Georgia and Ukraine.

The Georgian police, meanwhile, were in a standoff with separatist forces in Mosabruni, a disputed village on the edge of South Ossetia.

Tbilisi accused separatists of preparing an act of provocation against its forces, while the breakaway region said the Georgian police had seized the village and were massing a large force there.

Originally published by AP, Reuters.

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