Russian troops sent mixed signals August 14 on honoring a deal to ease the Georgian conflict. Conditions inside the Caucasus state remained volatile, while on the international front, the prospect of a breakdown in US-Russian relations grew.
Russian officials on August 12 agreed to a EU-brokered program that was supposed to pave the way for a durable peace between Russia and Georgia. Since then, however, Russian troops, rather than withdrawing, have appeared to expand their presence within Georgia proper.
Speaking at a late night news conference, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili charged that Russian troops have moved still further into Georgian territory, sending a column of over 100 tanks towards the country's second largest city, Kutaisi, in central Georgia. He described the advance as "diplomatic blackmail."
By all appearances, the Kremlin appears intent on drastically altering the geopolitical balance in the Caucasus, striving to greatly reduce, if not eliminate the US presence in the region. Moscow's next step could be the permanent dismemberment of Georgia. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on August 14 announced that the world can "forget about Georgia's territorial integrity." Those words were interpreted locally to mean that Russia would soon either recognize South Ossetia's and Abkhazia's independence, or annex them.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev met August 14 with de facto Abkhaz leader Sergei Bagapsh and de facto South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoity. The two separatist leaders endorsed the six-point framework document for an eventual Russian-Georgian peace agreement.
On the ground, Russian troops are maintaining a strong presence in many areas. Russian troops, tanks and armored vehicles milled in and around the Georgian city of Gori, located an hour's drive from the capital Tbilisi.
Georgian television reporters visiting the city's outskirts showed tanks blocking the road, and Russian troops checking vehicles traveling on the main east-west highway that runs past Gori. Russian soldiers on the scene appeared to have thin patience for interviews, some threatening to shoot journalists. Others, not conversant in Georgian, allowed interviews with locals who freely described the tense situation within the city.
Underscoring the prevailing danger, one flak-jacketed Georgian Public Broadcasting reporter was lightly wounded today just outside the city while doing a stand-up. "I think it was a sniper bullet," Tamar Urushadze said, as she continued reporting, her hand soaked in a bloody bandage.
Georgian officials have complained that Russian troops have committed numerous abuses in Gori, including widespread looting. A television reporter from the Georgian station Rustavi-2 quizzed a Russian soldier near Gori about the provenance of a gold fork sticking out of his uniform pocket. Meanwhile, video obtained by Rustavi-2 showed Russian troops going through a Georgian military barracks, with one soldier complaining about the comparatively comfortable living standards enjoyed by Georgian military personnel. "They had everything!" he yelled. "We live like bums by comparison."
One unidentified Russian officer put the scene in pragmatic terms. Russian forces had seized Georgian ammunition depots as "a trophy," he said. "You don't know the rules of war?" he asked the Georgian TV reporter.
In the environs of Gori, displaced persons told of a situation of lawlessness in which looting, arson and murder were rampant. In many instances, South Ossetian paramilitaries and Cossack irregulars were alleged to be carrying out acts of vengeance against ethnic Georgians. Amnesty International expressed alarm over the swelling number of reports about atrocities. "Deliberate targeting of civilians would amount to a war crime, as would attacks on civilians that were indiscriminate or disproportionate," the rights group said in a statement. "Such crimes must not be left unpunished."
Saakashvili said that his government had received some 1,400 reports of crimes against ethnic Georgians ranging from rape to murder. Visibly angry, Saakashvili drew reporters' attention to the August 12 Human Rights Watch report that publicized reports about atrocities. "This is happening right now, as I speak," Saakashvili said in reference to the brutal treatment of civilians described in the document. "In front of the eyes of the mankind, Russian troops are perpetrating ethnic cleansing, and I cannot do anything to stop them."
Saakashvili appealed "for the help of every civilized person to stop this uncivilized behavior, this inhumane, absolutely outrageous behavior." The Kremlin earlier denied the allegations.
Georgian officials have announced that roughly 28,000 individuals have been registered as displaced persons since Russian troops unleashed their offensive against Georgia on August 8.
Over the past few days, the tone of US officials has become increasingly hostile toward Russia. During an August 14 news conference, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates charged that Russia's campaign in Georgia was designed to cement the Kremlin's control over the Caspian Basin, an energy rich region. "They performed very badly," Gates said. He added that US-Russian relations could very well sustain long-term damage because of the Georgian crisis.
Meanwhile, a top US diplomat, Matthew Bryza, assailed Russia for using the opportunity of the clash in South Ossetia to drive Georgian forces from the Kodori Gorge in Abkhazia. "This was planned well in advance," Bryza said in Russian after emerging from a meeting with Georgian Parliamentary Speaker David Bakradze.
Bryza warned Moscow that it would regret any action that contradicted the principle of Georgian territorial integrity. "If these very smart people in the Russian Duma think that today Abkhazia and South Ossetia are going to declare independence, they are hurting Russia," he said. In addition, Bryza criticized Medvedev's decision to meet with the separatist leaders of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
The show of international support for Georgia continues to build. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan traveled to Tbilisi on August 14 and US Secretary of State Rice is expected to arrive on August 15 for a six-hour visit.
Giorgi Lomsadze is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi. EurasiaNets Caucasus news editor, Elizabeth Owen, also contributed reporting to this story.