Georgia: Russian Troops Disregarding Presidential Pullout Pledge
In Moscow, a top military spokesman, Col. Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn, claimed that the Russian army had started withdrawing in accordance with a pledge made by Medvedev to French President Nicolas Sarkozy on August 17. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. On the ground, EurasiaNet correspondents did not detect any movement by Russian troops and armor to relinquish occupied territory.
Georgian officials reported two incidents in which Russian forces appeared to threaten Georgian sovereignty. In one televised episode, a Russian armored personnel carrier pushed its way past a Georgian police post, situated only about 30 kilometers from the Georgian capital of Tbilisi. During the confrontation, the APC damaged a Georgian police car before turning back.
In an incident with far more serious implications, Georgian police found themselves in a standoff with Russian convoys bound for Georgian towns of Sachkhere and Borjomi. According to the Georgian Interior Ministry, the Russian convoys did not try to proceed when Georgian police officers barred the way forward.
In another indicator of lingering uncertainty, Georgian and Russian officials failed to complete a prisoner exchange on August 18. Georgia's deputy defense minister, Batu Kutelia, accused Russian officials of providing inaccurate prisoner information. "The list includes names of people who have already been set free," Kutelia told a news conference. He added that Georgia would accept only an "all for all" exchange arrangement. Russia accused Georgia of abandoning the exchange negotiations.
Underscoring Russia's apparent intention to tightly control access to the areas that it occupies, the International Committee of the Red Cross announced August 18 that the organization was unable to operate in South Ossetia. "More than 10 days after the armed conflict erupted, the ICRC's key priority remains gaining safe and unimpeded access to all areas affected by the conflict, including South Ossetia, as well as isolated villages near Gori, which were cut off by the fighting," said an ICRC statement. "As of 18 August, the ICRC still has not received the necessary security guarantees from the authorities to gain access to South Ossetia."
Amid the growing evidence that Russian troops may stay in Georgia for a prolonged period, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili gave an impassioned speech, in which he argued that an extended occupation would prove debilitating for Russia. "I do not pin great hopes on your mercy, and I do not count on it now," Saakashvili said, addressing the Russian leadership. "But I pin hopes on your pragmatism."
"The only thing you can gain through marauding, looting, robbing, exploding and demolishing is international alienation for many months, years and even generations," Saakashvili continued. The speech was broadcast early on August 18 on Georgian state television.
Saakashvili asserted that the goal of Russia's military offensive was "the destruction of Georgia's free soul." He added that the country's "spirit of resistance had not been broken, and wouldn't be broken."
Many Georgians are fretting that vague language contained in the framework agreement under which Russia pledged to withdraw its military forces from Georgia creates a loophole that can enable the Kremlin to justify a continuing military presence on Georgian territory.
While the Russians are hesitant to leave, Georgian officials are anxious to recover lost territory. Georgian police were poised on August 18 to move in as soon as soon as Russian forces withdrew. Multiple police checkpoints cut the highway leading to the Russian positions; at Igoeti, some several kilometers from Gori, rows of regular police, carrying rifles, lined the road alongside a hilltop medieval church overlooking farmland. Later in the day, a handful of police could be seen guarding a road leading through the farmlands to the south. Georgian National Security Council staff reached earlier in the day said that the Russians had given them no official time for the start of the withdrawal.
Beyond Igoeti, Russian troops maintained multiple checkpoints along the road to Gori. Fuel tankers could be seen passing in the opposite direction; scattered armored personnel carriers and a few tanks lined the fields to the south of the highway. The mood was one of heightened expectation, although soldiers did not seem to know whether or not they would receive an order to move out.
At a junction two kilometers outside of Gori, a Russian checkpoint with tanks blocked media from entering the city or cars from driving to the northeast, en route to South Ossetia. Soldiers cited the pending arrival of an unidentified general, who supposedly would serve as escort for the international press. The general never showed up.
Even so, several journalists managed to make it to Gori via back roads. The city was largely empty and quiet, with few cars or open stores. Civilians in the city were grappling with a food shortage. Outside the city's main administrative building, a small crowd comprising mainly old women grew restless as they sought to obtain aid. "They only give them [food supplies] to certain people," raged Nazu Utanidze, a ceramics artisan. "I've been up since 6 a.m. going to places to try and find this aid. Nowhere. We've gotten nothing. How were we supposed to know this war would come?"
Later, Georgia's state minister for regional development, Davit Tqeshalashvili, addressed a crowd of journalists under Stalin's statue in the center of the city. He asserted that Russian troops were hampering the delivery of humanitarian assistance. "The biggest problem is that the occupying forces should leave independent Georgia," Tqeshalashvili, speaking in English, said. "If they don't, it'll be very difficult for the peaceful population [here]."
Despite Tqeshalashvili's assertion, aid convoys from the World Food Programme and the International Committee for the Red Cross managed to enter the city on August 18.
For Tqeshalashvili and interviewed city residents, however, the supplies alone are not enough. "We have to establish order, so that the stores can open, so that we can turn on the gas," the state minister said.
Russian troops in Gori -- both regular army and peacekeeping units -- contend that Georgian expectations of a fast withdrawal were unrealistic. "There's no way we can get out all of those people, all that equipment in one day," said one army officer, wearing dark sunglasses and a camouflage bandana over his lower face. "We cannot do a withdrawal that fast."
A Russian peacekeeper from Tskhinvali, the nearby capital of disputed South Ossetia, blamed Gori city officials for the humanitarian aid crisis. "When we came in, they just ran away," he claimed, squinting quizzically at the administrative building. "They created a panic in the population. With whom can we speak now?"
For Georgian officials now trying to operate in the occupied zone, hopes seem to be diminishing rapidly that Russian soldiers will leave. "There's no sign of any change. They're digging trenches. They're not planning on leaving," said Giorgi Meladze, a volunteer from Tbilisi who has opened up a building media center to handle the rapidly growing number of press requests.
Russian officers in Gori seemed uncertain about their plans. Told that Col. Gen. Nogovitsyn had announced that the withdrawal had begun, the Tskhinvali peacekeeping officer, who declined to give his name, declared: "If he said that, it'll happen. It'll happen."
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