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Georgia Cease-Fire Shaky As Russian Troops Stay

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The truce between Russia and Georgia over the breakaway territory of South Ossetia remains precarious. Russian troops are still inside the former Soviet republic. The United States is standing strong with Georgia.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

The cease-fire between Russia and Georgia over the breakaway territory of South Ossetia remains shaky. Russian troops are still in the key Georgian city of Gori. The U.S. is standing firmly with its ally Georgia. It's sending tons of humanitarian aid to Georgia, as well as diplomatic muscle in the form of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

In a moment, we'll hear more about the U.S. humanitarian and diplomatic intervention. But first, we're joined by NPR's Ivan Watson, who is on the road on the outskirts of Gori. And Ivan, what is the situation there today? Does it appear that Russian forces are actually withdrawing as promised?

IVAN WATSON: No. The Russians are not withdrawing, and they are not allowing Georgian forces to go in. I'm hearing explosions on a hill and smoke rising up just above me as I speak, Renee. The long the short of it is the Russians are not allowing the Georgian security forces to go into Gori, and it's been a very tense morning, where you have hundreds of Georgian soldiers that are just a few hundred yards away from a Russian checkpoint at the entrance to town where there are several Russian tanks parked and a number of soldiers arrayed in the woods around there.

There have been negotiations between the two sides, but those broke down at one point. And then the Georgians tried to advance anyway in a column of cars full of soldiers. The Russians immediately went on alert, they cocked their weapons and pointed them at the Georgians, and this very tense standoff then erupted. Let's take a listen to the recording of what happened just a few hours ago.

After several hours of relative peace, suddenly, the Russians are on alert and are pointing their weapons and advancing in formation up the road towards the Georgian military positions. There's a man in - riding on top of the tank, pointing his AK-47 down the road, and they're followed by more Russian soldiers right now.

Now, fortunately, Renee, no shots were fired in what was a very tense moment between the two militaries. Now, the Georgians have pulled back a little bit. There had been some more negotiations between the soldiers from both sides. But then just now, a couple of Russian-backed militia fighters who eyewitnesses say were drunk walked past the Russian checkpoint and proceeded to steal at least one car just belonging to a TV company next to the Russian tanks. And in that moment, there was a shot fired in the air, and I'd say 40 or 50 journalists fled the scene and have pulled back to the Georgian frontlines.

So, again, in a very adrenaline-filled morning, and the Russians indicating they are not going to hand this town over to the Georgians today.

MONTAGNE: Is it odd for you, Ivan, to be there with Georgian and Russian forces standing there, effectively, side by side?

WATSON: It is very strange because at moments throughout the morning, the Russians and the Georgians have been speaking in Russian, shaking hands, sharing cigarettes and seeming very comfortable together. But then where there are problems, when there are breakdown in the negotiations, suddenly you get these moments of tension.

When the Georgians pulled out, there was a large delegation in the town of Gori apparently conducting negotiations with the Russians. When they left, they said the Russians aren't going to hand over the town. The South Ossetians are not going to give it over to us.

And recall that this conflict erupted over Georgia's offensive into the breakaway region of South Ossetia, where there is a rival ethnic group that does not want Georgian rule. And Russia came back, defended the South Ossetians and has since pounded the Georgians and occupied quite a bit of Georgian territory.

MONTAGNE: Well, what more can you tell us about the situation today in South Ossetia?

WATSON: We've gotten reports the Human Rights Watch, a human rights watchdog based in New York, they've had researchers on both sides of the front lines. One of their researchers interviewed a doctor in the main hospital in South Ossetia in the town of Tskhinvali who told them that they had had a total of 44 bodies in their morgue since the start of this conflict last week.

Now that does not correspond with Russian claims that some 2,000 people were killed in the first 24 hours of the fighting when the Georgians launched their offensive. Human Rights Watch also has documented offenses carried out both by the Georgian military in the first days of their attack and now by Russian and, more importantly, by these irregular Russian-backed forces in the past week as they've moved into Georgian villages - descriptions of them looting houses, burning houses as well, and even the execution of some ethnic Georgians that they've come across.

MONTAGNE: Ivan, thanks very much for talking with us.

WATSON: You're welcome, Renee.

(Soundbite of car horn)

MONTAGNE: NPR's Ivan Watson on the outskirts of Gori, Georgia.

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Saakashvili May Have Misjudged U.S. Support

Explaining The Conflict

Credit: Corey Flintoff, Alice Kreit/NPR

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili's leadership in the war with Russia has sparked both praise and scorn.

His supporters describe his actions as courageous while detractors say he used catastrophically bad judgment. The American-trained lawyer has enjoyed strong U.S. support but may have ignored Bush administration warnings when he tried to recapture the separatist enclave of South Ossetia.

Saakashvili, now 40, won the presidency of Georgia in 2004 on a platform that stressed regaining control of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, two regions that have been under the control of ethnic separatists since the early 1990s. The separatists had the support of Russia, which has provided them with aid and troops who were part of a peacekeeping mission.

Rice Provided Warnings

Saakashvili had American support, reinforced by a visit to Tbilisi in July from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. The visit came at a time of rising tension between Georgia and Russia, and Rice took a tough stand, saying Russia had to be part of resolving the problem "and not contributing to it." Bush administration officials recently told The Washington Post that Rice privately counseled Saakashvili not to use force in his efforts to regain the separatist areas.

Georgia was already working with the U.S. military in Iraq, providing a contingent of 2,000 troops under a United Nations mandate. In return, the U.S. provided Georgia with military aid, training and support for Saakashvili's eventual hope of joining the NATO alliance. During the Georgian leader's visit to the White House in 2006, President Bush called him a "key ally" and "a valued partner in the war on terror."

Saakashvili's American Education

Saakashvili's connection to the United States goes back to 1992, when he won a State Department fellowship that paid his way to graduate study at Columbia Law School. He went on to earn a law degree from George Washington University in Washington, D.C., in 1995.

That same year, Saakashvili also earned a diploma from the International Institute of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, where he met his future wife, Dutch human rights activist Sandra Roelofs.

An Opponent Of Corruption

Saakashvili worked briefly for a New York law firm before he was recruited to enter politics in Georgia with the party of then-President Eduard Shevardnadze. He was elected to parliament, where he became known for his work on electoral and court reform.

In 2000, Saakashvili became Shevardnadze's minister of justice, but he quickly broke with the administration by accusing the trade and security ministers of corruption. Saakashvili resigned from the government and formed a new center-left political party.

He was elected chairman of the city assembly in Tbilisi, Georgia's capital, in 2002, holding that post until Shevardnadze's government collapsed during the Rose Revolution of late 2003.

After his election as president in 2004, Saakashvili concentrated on economic reform, winning praise from the World Bank for improving business conditions and making a slight dent in Georgia's endemic corruption. His policy toward the two separatist enclaves has ranged from offers of aid to threats of violence.

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