Brushing aside international calls for restraint, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev on August 26 approved a parliamentary resolution to formally recognize the independence of Georgia's two separatist regions -- Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The move is sure to inflame tension in the Caucasus and accelerate the deterioration of Russia's relations with the West. A White House spokesman denounced Russia for "making a number of irrational decisions."
Both houses of the Russian parliament unanimously adopted the independence resolution on August 25. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Reacting immediately to the legislature's move, Germany and other European Union member states urged Medvedev not to approve the measure. The vacationing US president, George W. Bush, chimed in from his Texas ranch, calling on the Russian government to adhere to long-standing international principles governing Georgia's so-called "frozen conflicts." "Georgia's territorial integrity and borders must command the same respect as every other nation's, including Russia's," Bush said in a statement.
Such an appeal fell on deaf ears. The Russian president wasted no time in endorsing the legislature's decision. In a televised address, Medvedev cast his actions as a natural outgrowth of what he described as Russia's peacekeeping mandate. "In the face of the existing situation, a decision was required," Medvedev said. "This is not an easy choice, but this is the only possible way to save people's lives."
Abkhazia and South Ossetia have long sought Russian recognition as independent states. But until recently, Moscow was not inclined to give in to the territories' desires. For example, shortly after the international recognition of Kosovo earlier this year, the Russian Duma, or lower house of parliament, voted to open diplomatic consuls in the contested territories, but stopped short of formal recognition.
Legally both Abkhazia and South Ossetia are considered part of Georgia, although Tbilisi lost control over them during two brief wars in the early 1990s. The Georgian government has accused Moscow of attempting to illegally annex the two regions by granting citizens in the conflict zones Russian passports, paying pensions and provided other financial assistance. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Georgian officials urged other countries to disregard the Kremlin's action. "'What Russia is doing against the sovereignty of Georgia refers to Europe too,'' Georgian media outlets reported State Minister for Reintegration Temur Iakobashvili as saying. "Human rights violation and the eviction of the peaceful population from their homes must not be ignored."
Meanwhile, other Georgian leaders insist that the move could boomerang on Russia. Justice Minister Nika Gvaramia told reporters that Medvedev's decision could spur separatism within Russia. ''I would like to know what Russia is going to do against separatism inside its borders, as the separatism is still problematic there," the justice minister said.
President Mikheil Saakashvili, in a brief televised address, called Russia's recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia "illegal" and "a big strategic mistake." He went on to suggest that Russia's behavior only hardened the determination of Georgians to resist. "It is not possible for one second for Georgia to live on its knees," Saakashvili said.
In a statement, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband urged international solidarity in opposing Russia's actions. He termed the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as "unjustifiable and unacceptable," adding that he would strive to "ensure the widest possible coalition against Russian aggression in Georgia."
The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe Chairman-in-Office, Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb, denounced the independence decision, as well as Russia's ongoing military presence in Georgia. In a written statement distributed on August 26, he accused Russia, a member of the OSCE, of violating "fundamental OSCE principles."
"Russia should immediately withdraw all troops from Georgia and implement the ceasefire agreement," Stubb stressed. "The international community cannot accept unilaterally established buffer zones," Stubb said in the statement.
Russian recognition came almost three weeks after the outbreak of hostilities between Russia and Georgia over South Ossetia; fighting also spilled over to Abkhazia. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Currently, Russian troops stand at checkpoints at the administrative borders between both regions and Georgia, and include forces inside Georgia proper. Russian tanks and military helicopters advanced further into Georgian territory on August 25, pushing Georgian police back a few kilometers from their checkpoint at Mosabruni near the village of Akhalgori -- controlled by Ossetian and Russian forces -- to an improvised station near the village of Odzisi.
For many of Georgia's internally displaced persons, Russia's recognition of the separatist territories did not come as a particular surprise. Malkhaz Akishbaia, who heads the pro-Georgian Abkhaz government-in-exile, characterized Russia's resolution as "just a piece of paper," and not something that substantially alters the existing situation on the ground.
Akishbaia indicated that as long as the international community's stance toward Abkhazia and South Ossetia remained unchanged, IDPs would retain hope that, one day, they could return to their home regions. "As long as they [the United States and European Union] recognize our [Georgia's] territorial integrity, it will take time, but we will restore our territorial integrity."
He suggested that Russian meddling was the main element preventing the Abkhaz and Georgians from settling their differences. "This is all artificial and they [Abkhaz leaders] know it," Akishbaia said.
He added that Abkhazia independence aspirations could have cultural consequences. "They're opening the door to a big country with lots of minorities. They will lose their culture, their language," Akishbaia contended.
Elizabeth Owen, EurasiaNets Caucasus news editor, provided reporting for this article.