Rice Delivers Cease-Fire Proposal To Georgia

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Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi with the goal of getting Russian combat forces out of the former Soviet country. Rice is carrying a draft cease-fire that requires Russia to withdraw combat troops and allows peacekeepers to remain in the flash-point separatist region.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is in Tbilisi today holding talks with the president of Georgia and other officials there. She'll propose a new ceasefire agreement to end the conflict between Russia and Georgia.

This morning President Bush said the United States will not falter in its support for that country.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: The United States and her allies stand with the people of Georgia and their democratically elected government. Georgia's sovereignty and territorial integrity must be respected.

MONTAGNE: Russian troops continue to occupy several key Georgia towns, however, and columns of Russian tanks and armored vehicles have been moving deeper into Georgian territory.

NPR's Ivan Watson is in the capital, Tbilisi, and joins us now to tell us more. And Ivan, what can you tell us about this ceasefire agreement.

IVAN WATSON: Well, Renee, it's a French-led initiative that Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, he shuttled between Tbilisi and Moscow to get both parties to agree to it in principle. And Condoleezza Rice is now coming from a meeting with Sarkozy in France to Georgia to present additional terms to the Georgians.

A copy of the draft has been floating around, and in it the agreement calls for a cessation of hostilities, free access to humanitarian aid. It says that the Georgian forces must withdraw to their bases. And as for the Russians, they're required to withdraw to the positions that they were in prior to the start of these hostilities.

And here it starts to get vague. It says that the Russian troops can continue to implement, quote, "additional security measures for six months." It's not really clear what that means. It also calls for opening international discussions on the future of Georgia's two breakaway regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Those have basically been under the control of Russian-backed separatists since the early '90s and they have been completely occupied now by the Russian military.

MONTAGNE: And what has Georgia had to say about this?

WATSON: Last night, the Georgian president, Mikhail Saakashvili, he told journalists he was being blackmailed into accepting a deal that he compared to the 1938 treaty of Munich which allowed Nazi Germany to annex part of Czechoslovakia. I just talked to a top aide to the Georgian president, Renee, and he says that this cease-fire agreement demonstrates how weak the West is, how little leverage it has over Russia.

And he complains that the document doesn't have any mechanism in it to allow independent observers to verify that what Moscow is actually promising, what it is saying, is actually being carried out on the ground, especially here in the parts of Georgian territory that the Russian troops continue to occupy.

MONTAGNE: Well, it also suggests that Georgia doesn't have much, if any, leverage when it comes to the Russians.

WATSON: Not at all, Renee. Basically Georgia is pretty powerless right now. The reality on the ground is that its military has been defeated. Russian troops currently occupy at least four major Georgian towns. They continue to destroy and dismantle the remnants of Georgian military and police installations.

And large columns of Russian tanks and armored vehicles continue to move freely deeper into Georgian territory. And when they do that, it periodically spreads panic and fear here in Tbilisi with people fearing that they may try to move into the Georgian capital.

This country's cut in two by the Russians, who have occupied the main artery that links this country. In the meantime we have militias that have come in on the backs of the Russian troops and they're moving into areas that the Russians have occupied, and they're going house-to-house looting and stealing cars and torching homes. And in some cases, according to refugees I've talked to, killing Georgians.

As a top Georgian official here put it, the only leverage that the government really has right now is its relationship with the West and the media. And he says that is what Georgia's been reduced to. Basically right not Russia can dictate the terms, because if Moscow chooses to, it can easily send troops rolling right in here into the Georgian capital any time.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Ivan Watson speaking to us from Tbilisi, Georgia. Thank you very much.

WATSON: You're welcome, Renee.

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U.S. Toughens Rhetoric On Russia-Georgia Conflict

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U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice meets with France's President Nicolas Sarkozy. i

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with France's President Nicolas Sarkozy (left) and Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner (right) Thursday. Rice stopped in France to talk with foreign officials about a cease-fire agreement negotiated by Sarkozy on the Russian-Georgian conflict. She heads to Georgia Friday. Philippe Laurenson/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Philippe Laurenson/AFP/Getty Images
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice meets with France's President Nicolas Sarkozy.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with France's President Nicolas Sarkozy (left) and Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner (right) Thursday. Rice stopped in France to talk with foreign officials about a cease-fire agreement negotiated by Sarkozy on the Russian-Georgian conflict. She heads to Georgia Friday.

Philippe Laurenson/AFP/Getty Images
Credit: Corey Flintoff, Alice Kreit/NPR

As U.S. government officials struggle to get a good sense of what is happening on the ground in Georgia, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is starting to play a more visible role on the diplomatic front. She was in talks in Paris Thursday, again calling on Russia to pull back.

"It is time for this crisis to be over," Rice said. "The Russian president has said that their military operations have halted. We would hope that he is true to his word and that those operations will halt."

French President Nicolas Sarkozy says that Rice will ask Georgia to sign a cease-fire document that he negotiated with the Russians when she heads to Tbilisi Friday. But the peace plan on the table appears to make major concessions to Russia.

The Cease-Fire Plan

Georgians have raised concerns that part of the French peace plan is too vague, giving Russia room to maneuver and keep some forces not only in the breakaway South Ossetia region, where this conflict began, but also in other parts of Georgia.

Georgian Ambassador Vasil Sikharulidze has said his small nation is ready for a cease-fire, but only under certain conditions.

"We don't want any cease-fire document to become the legitimization for Russian occupation of Georgian territories," Sikharulidze said.

Officials traveling with Rice told reporters that the six-point plan she's bringing to Tbilisi Friday gives Russians a limited right to patrol in Georgia — beyond the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia where they already had peacekeepers.

But Rice did not mention that in public, insisting that both the U.S. and France respect the territorial integrity of Georgia.

"We will work very hard to see if we can bring an end to this crisis," Rice said. "It is long overdue. Too many innocent people have died. And Georgia, whose territorial integrity and independence and sovereignty we fully respect, must be able to get back to normal life."

Ignoring Russia's Bluster

U.S. officials say they are ignoring what they call the latest bluster from Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Lavrov told reporters Thursday that the world should forget about Georgia's territorial integrity because South Ossetia and Abkhazia cannot be forced back under Georgian rule.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said today that it is clear this conflict is about more than those regions and that this is Moscow's attempt to regain its sphere of influence. He said there should be consequences for Russia's aggression in Georgia, though he ruled out the use of U.S. military force.

"The United States spent 45 years working very hard to avoid a military confrontation with Russia," Gates said. "I see no reason to change that approach today."

A Threat To U.S.-Russian Relations

Gates has been tasked with a humanitarian operation and says that it appears the Georgian port in Poti is intact and supply routes are open. He warned that if Russia does not step back, U.S. and Russian relations could be hurt for years to come, and so too will Russia's aspirations to join international institutions.

"Everyone is going to be looking at Russia through a different set of lenses as we — as we look ahead," Gates said. "And I think Russia's got some serious work to do to try and work its way back into the family of nations that are trying to work together and build democracy and build — and build their economies."

Perhaps the first sign of change happened in Poland, where the U.S. finally got the agreement it wanted to station U.S. missile interceptors as part of a missile defense system. Poland had been reluctant to go along with the U.S. plans for fear of angering Russia, but it initialed the deal Thursday.

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