Russia Recognizes Breakaway Georgian Regions

Russia has formally recognized the breakaway Georgian territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which were at the heart of the recent war with Georgia. President Dmitri Medvedev said Georgia forced Russia's hand by trying to seize control of South Ossetia.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block. Russia has officially recognized the independence of two regions of Georgia. That decision escalates the standoff between Russia and Western leaders, and it violates Russia's ceasefire with Georgia.

Today, from his ranch in Texas, President Bush issued a statement condemning Russia's announcement. He said granting the two regions independence, quote, "exacerbates tensions and complicates diplomatic negotiations."

In a moment, we'll hear reaction from Georgia. First, to NPR's Gregory Feifer in Moscow.

GREGORY FEIFER: The timing of President Dmitry Medvedev's nationally televised announcement was a surprise, coming just one day after Russia's parliament called on him to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

President DMITRY MEDVEDEV (Russia): (Speaking foreign language)

FEIFER: Russia's French-brokered ceasefire with Georgia states that the region's status would be decided in future negotiations. But a stern Medvedev today said Georgia's attack against the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali earlier this month gave South Ossetia and Abkhazia the right to choose their own status.

Medvedev said he had no choice but to sign decrees recognizing their independence.

President MEDVEDEV: (Speaking foreign language)

FEIFER: The Georgian authorities methodically prepared for war, Medvedev said. Georgia never planned to solve this conflict peacefully. President Mikhail Saakashvili chose genocide to solve his political tasks.

Russia's invasion of pro-Western Georgia, in response to Tbilisi's attack on South Ossetia, caused a serious rift with the West. Moscow's moved to redraw the map of the Caucasus Mountains region today prompted a wave of international condemnation, but speaking to reporters, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov dismissed the possibility Moscow would face international isolation.

Foreign Minister SERGEY LAVROV (Russia): No, I don't believe this should be really a doomsday scenario. I believe common sense should prevail.

FEIFER: Although many analysts said today's decision was a payback for the West's recognition of Kosovo's independence, Lavrov rejected the connection, saying the circumstances were completely different.

In another breach of Russia's ceasefire with Georgia, Lavrov said Russian troops would remain indefinitely on Georgian territory, outside the two breakaway regions. He said the ceasefire allowed Russia to undertake additional security measures.

Foreign Minister LAVROV: Which is absolutely crucial to monitor the Georgians and to send another warning if they start a new military adventure.

FEIFER: Russian troops are stationed at Georgia's Black Sea port of Poti, which is far from Abkhazia and South Ossetia and where Washington says a U.S. war ship will unload humanitarian aid tomorrow.

Speaking to the BBC today, Medvedev accused the United States of smuggling weapons into Georgia. But despite Western countries' criticism of Russia, they have very little leverage over Moscow. Medvedev told Russian television today Moscow is not afraid of a new Cold War.

Analyst Kuril Rogov(ph) says the Russian authorities have made a conscious decision to stop Russia's integration with the West.

Mr. KURIL ROGOV (Analyst): (Speaking foreign language)

FEIFER: Today's announcement is a bomb in Russia's relations with the West, he said. It's been detonated to make sure Russia doesn't follow a more liberal, pro-Western path.

Rogov said today's decision would adversely affect Russia's development and international standing for years to come.

Gregory Feifer, NPR News, Moscow.

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Russia's Vote Sparks Jubilation In South Ossetia

Correction Aug. 26, 2008

Some versions of the story referred to Russia's president as Vladimir Medvedev. His name is Dmitri Medvedev.

Russian President Dmitri Medvedev signed a decree Tuesday making final Russia's decision to recognize the independence of two breakaway regions of Georgia. Russia's parliament had voted in support of the decision on Monday.

The Bush administration is not happy with Russia's decree. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called Russia's move "regrettable."

But there is strong support for independence in the regions, including South Ossetia. And the decision to recognize them as independent came much more quickly than the South Ossetians expected.

After the Russian parliament's decision, South Ossetians drove through the streets, waving Russian and Ossetian flags and spraying champagne to celebrate. Their goals — independence, then marriage with Russia — suddenly seemed within reach.

Mary Katchmadova sobbed at the news, caught between joy and the exhaustion of years of conflict. Why, she asked, has it taken so much time and so many lives to get everyone's attention?

Instead of celebrating, many Ossetians had more pressing needs — like getting the lights turned back on and fixing their bombed houses. Ultimately, Sofia Alborova said, Moscow is her only hope.

"Only Russia can save us. If it weren't for the Russian army, we would have been wiped out entirely," she said.

Russia has supported this isolated, impoverished region since it broke away from Georgia in the early 1990s. Like most people here, Deputy Foreign Minister Alan Pliev already has a Russian passport, even though the international community continues to insist his region is part of Georgia. He said Russia's recognition of South Ossetian independence will be followed by other countries, like China, Belarus and Syria.

"The first step is independence. Then we will determine whether we want to be with our brothers in North Ossetia and Russia or remain independent," Pliev said.

On a good day, South Ossetia's capital, Tskhinvali, was a sleepy backwater. The economy has survived on Moscow's handouts and on the illegal trade in drugs, arms and counterfeit $100 bills. Young people have left, and the population now is less than 70,000.

David Karsanov, 23, said he thinks everyone will return now that there is the promise of real independence. But he and other Ossetians said the thousands of Georgians who lived here until earlier this month cannot return.

In a backlash after Georgian troops came in, Russian and South Ossetian forces razed the Georgian villages on the outskirts of the capital. Looted and burned, they are now nothing more than heaps of rubble.

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