Aid Ship Diverted From Port Guarded By Russians
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And we turn now to Georgia. The United States has decided not to send a ship carrying humanitarian aid to the Georgian port of Poti on the Black Sea. The U.S. had announced plans to anchor the Coast Guard cutter Dallas at Poti - that was yesterday. Although that port city is in the country of Georgia, Russian troops have not withdrawn from there and they've kept up several checkpoints on the outskirts of the town.
So the ship has docked at another Georgian port, Batumi, where there are no Russian troops. Batumi is 50 miles south of Poti and was used by another American ship delivering relief earlier this week. NPR's Mike Shuster is with us now from Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, to sort some of this out. And are there other reasons that the plans were scrapped to send Dallas to Poti?
MIKE SHUSTER: Well, I think that the U.S. embassy here in Tbilisi prematurely announced that the Coast Guard cutter was going to go into Poti. But I think that there were some in the U.S./European command and elsewhere in the U.S. military and the U.S. government that didn't feel comfortable putting the Coast Guard cutter into Poti with Russian troops there, with Russian warships patrolling not so far away along the coast of Georgia.
So they continued - the Americans continued to discuss this all afternoon and into the evening yesterday. The USS McFall, a guided missile destroyer, has also been in the area and it was present near Poti, apparently for protection of the Coast Guard cutter should the decision have been made to put it into Poti.
And then last night the Russian president, in an interview, Dmitri Medvedev, charged that the United States was delivering weapons under the cover of the delivery of aid. Of course the White House denied that, but there was a certain level of hostility that was brewing about this and the United States might have decided that it was simply safer to bring in the aid in the port of Batumi.
MONTAGNE: Was there a serious fear, Mike, of a confrontation with the Russian navy?
SHUSTER: Well, the thing about it is that it was the government of Georgia that urged the United States to put in at Poti. And it's certainly possible that when the comments from the Russian military and the Russian president were brought into the mix and U.S. decision makers were trying to sort this all out, they may have feared or may have been uneasy about the possibility of a confrontation.
And one Navy spokesman told me today that it just - that the port of Batumi was a known quantity; the port of Poti was not, and they finally decided to go with a known quantity.
MONTAGNE: What about Poti - is there any sense that it's being occupied, given that the Russian troops are there?
SHUSTER: No. My sense is that the situation in Poti is relatively normal. There are bloggers that are writing daily about the situation there and I had a conversation with one of them earlier today. Businesses are open; shops are open; the electricity is on; they have running water; they have communications; the Internet is working. And they tell me that Russian troops are not much in evidence except at road checkpoints. There are a couple of checkpoints outside of Poti where there are Russian troops.
And interestingly enough, there are daily small protests at these checkpoints. Small groups of residents at Poti have been gathering in the center of Poti and then walking to where the Russians are and protesting the Russian presence. In fact, there's one report that the Russians beat up a young man who was taking part in one of these protests a couple of weeks ago - beat him up fairly severely.
But the residents of Poti say that the port is open, although it's operating at less capacity. So it doesn't feel, at leas the picture that they paint for me, it doesn't feel like Poti is under military occupation.
MONTAGNE: And Mike, in just 30 seconds that we have left here - overhanging all of this, of course, is that Russia has recognized South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states.
SHUSTER: That's right. But for the moment not much has changed for most Georgians. Those two enclaves have behaved as if they're independent. They broke away some 17 years ago. The president of Georgia has called this a completely illegal move, but the Georgian government actually doesn't quite know what to do about it and we're sort of in a limbo there.
MONTAGNE: Mike, thanks very much.
SHUSTER: You're welcome, Renee.
MONTAGNE: NPR's Mike Shuster speaking to us from the Georgian capital of Tbilisi.