Rice: Russia Risks International Condemnation

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is expected to visit the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, this week in an effort to resolve the Russia-Georgia conflict. On Thursday, Rice meets with France's president, who has taken the diplomatic lead in dealing with the conflict.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The United States says it's sending major humanitarian aid to Georgia in an operation run by the Pentagon. And Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is on her way to the region to show solidarity with Georgia's government. Before leaving, Rice said Russia is risking international condemnation in its conflict.

Secretary CONDOLEEZZA RICE (U.S. State Department): This is not 1968 and the invasion of Czechoslovakia, where Russia can threaten its neighbors, occupy a capital, overthrow a government and get away with it. Things have changed.

INSKEEP: We're going to get more this morning from NPR diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen. And Michele, just listening to Condi Rice right now, I have to wonder how much has changed. The United States has made it clear it's not going to intervene militarily, here.

MICHELE KELEMEN: That's right. I mean, basically, what we're hearing is much more stronger rhetoric and this promise that President Bush made yesterday of a vigorous and ongoing humanitarian operation that's going to be run by the Pentagon.

We're also seeing the president postponing his vacation plans, and Secretary Rice called off her vacation. You know, Georgia's president seems to be pleased with this tougher rhetoric. He's been complaining that the Bush administration's initial comments were far too weak, in that it essentially gave the Russians a green light to act.

INSKEEP: Well, is Georgia supposed to get the idea that it can resist more strongly, that it will get concrete support from Washington, as well as humanitarian aid and rhetoric?

KELEMEN: That's not what the signals that the Bush administration is trying to send. You know, both the president and the secretary were very tough about this humanitarian operation, saying that Russia has to keep its sea routes open, its air routes open to the U.S. so that the U.S. military can bring in supplies.

Georgian President Saakashvili thought that this meant that ports and airports would be under U.S. control. Now, the Pentagon immediately denied that was this case. This was mainly a message to send to Russia that it should allow of these aid shipments to come through.

INSKEEP: Okay, so what leverage does Secretary Rice have to change the situation when she gets to the region?

KELEMEN: Well, you know, it's interesting. She was in Georgia earlier this summer. Her aides said that she did press Georgia's president not to, you know, take the bait from Russia or the separatists that Moscow support. Tensions were building for months.

So U.S. policymakers weren't really surprised by this, but they do seem to be really taken aback by Russia's response. So Rice said yesterday that Russia overreached, that its invasion, as officials here have been calling it, show that this was about far more than South Ossetia or Abkhazia, which is another one of these breakaway regions that Moscow supports. And she said if Russia continues to violate a cease-fire, that it will deepen its isolation.

So that seems to be the leverage that the U.S. at least thinks it has, that Russia wants to integrate into various institutions, and the U.S. may try to stop that.

INSKEEP: Well, what does Russia have to say when the U.S. voices support for Georgia like this?

KELEMEN: Russia's foreign minister yesterday said that he understands that the Georgian government and President Saakashvili is a special project of the Bush administration. Those are his words. He said that the U.S. has to choose between saving its prestige over this virtual project or having a real partnership with Russia.

Secretary Rice said that, you know, Russia is working with the U.S. on other issues - not as a favor to the Bush administration, but because it's in Moscow's interest. And as for choosing, she said the U.S. is standing with the democratically president of Georgia.

You know, it's interesting that she's actually going to Georgia, but has no plans at the moment to visit Moscow.

INSKEEP: Michele, thanks very much.

KELEMEN: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Michele Kelemen. She's helping us keep track of the situation between Russia and Georgia, and our coverage continues online at npr.org. That's where NPR's Corey Flintoff explores this question, whether Georgia misjudged the amount of American support it could expect.

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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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