RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
And this morning begins with the possibility of peace in Georgia. Russian President Dmitri Medvedev has ordered an end to Russian military operations there. He made the announcement earlier today on a nationally televised broadcast. In a moment we'll talk to NPR's Ivan Watson, who's in Georgia's capital of Tbilisi. But first, let's go to NPR's Moscow correspondent, Gregory Feifer.
And Greg, what did the president of Russia say this morning?
GREGORY FEIFER: Well, he said that he had decided to end Russia's operation to what he called bring the Georgian authorities to peace, because the security of Russian peacekeepers and the civilian population of the pro-Moscow separatist of region of South Ossetia had been secured. He also said that the aggressor has been punished.
MONTAGNE: So Georgia is secured as far as Russia is concerned, and Georgia the aggressor punished. There was during these past few days a lot of international pressure on the Russians to end this fighting. But up to now they did seem to ignore that pressure. Why do you think President Medvedev made his announcement today?
FEIFER: Well, that's a very good question. French President Nicolas Sarkozy has just arrived in Moscow. Indeed, he arrived right after Medvedev had given his order. The two are now in talks, and Sarkozy is hoping to broker a peace deal between Georgia and Moscow.
And so I mean there's the suspicion that Medvedev wanted to preempt international pressure, so to speak, to show that Moscow was still making its own decisions, and then also to be able to give himself the opportunity to stand onstage at a join news conference with Sarkozy, this news conference we're awaiting any minute now, and to show himself to be a responsible member on the world stage.
MONTAGNE: Well, we'll get to asking you some details about the possible peace deal, but - and stay on the line. But we'd like to speak now to NPR's Ivan Watson, who is in Tbilisi. Thousands of protesters have gathered there in support on Georgia's president. And Ivan, what are you seeing?
IVAN WATSON: Renee, the rally is just breaking up now. It's just broken up. And there were thousands of people here waiving the red and white flag of Georgia, which has four crosses on it. It was a defiant rally attended by the Georgian president, Mikhail Saakashvili. The crowd sang the Georgian national anthem with their fists up in the air, waving the flags. They had signs up saying Stop Russia and photographs of Vladimir Putin, calling him Adolf Putin with a Hitler mustache on him. And this was a show of defiance and patriotism in the face of the Russian military attacks. And it's a remarkable turnaround, Renee, to see this less than 24 hours after the Georgian military was routed from a town just 50 miles west of here, from the town of Gori, after they fled en masse in a very haphazard fashion. And now to see so many Georgians come out in the street and join together in defiance of Russia, it's really remarkable.
MONTAGNE: And Georgia's government has said that Russian military planes are continuing with airstrikes out the region of South Ossetia. Can you confirm that?
WATSON: I cannot confirm that. There were three helicopters I saw that flew about 30 miles west of here, and I believe they were Russian and they were dropping heat flares which set fire to some fields. And there certainly were airstrikes earlier today, certainly in the town of Gori, which the Georgian military abandoned yesterday, and in the central square of that town there was shattered glass everywhere, there was shrapnel marks in the street, and at least one foreign journalist was killed in a series of explosions there. There were still fires burning on the Hib(ph) Mountains around that town of Gori. So we still have seen violence going on today, Russian military attacks against the Georgian army and the Georgian territory, and I have not seen any evidence of the Georgian military, I might add, at all. No defenses, no fortifications, no military vehicles except the ones that were abandoned on the side of the road during last night's very hasty and panicked retreat to the Georgian capital.
MONTAGNE: Well, Ivan, what has been the reaction of the Georgian leadership to the Russian announcement, especially President Saakashvili?
WATSON: I confess, Renee, I don't - I didn't have a complete translation of what he said, and I didn't hear him directly address Medvedev's statement. Instead, he was vowing that Georgian would continue to fight on. He was denouncing what he called Russian aggression. He said this was a fight for freedom, and he also made one statement, which was very important. He declared that Georgia would withdraw from the Commonwealth of Independent States, the CIS, this loose organization that is founded of former Soviet Republics and that Moscow tends to lead, he says he is quitting that organization and he is urging other republics of the former Soviet Union like Ukraine, for example, to follow Georgia's example.
Of course there is some talk, at least on this end, of President Saakashvili making something of a rash move in trying to take back South Ossetia, as he did some days ago, and in a sense provoking the Russians to come in to that region and then ultimately into Georgia. Has there been any response to that or indication that they might have, the government of Georgia might have made a bad choice there?
WATSON: It depends on who you talk to, Renee. The people who have been forced to flee their homes - and there are thousands of ethnic Georgians who fled, who've seen their homes destroyed or damaged and are now sleeping in the streets, some of them - they, some of them are very angry at Saakashvili. One man, he spat on the ground and swore about him when I asked him about that today.
Here in the capital, this crowd was very supportive. They were chanting Saakashvili's name. People were saying that those who had been in the opposition just a few weeks ago, in the political opposition, were now uniting behind them. They said if we don't like Saakashvili, it is our choice to get rid of him, it is our choice to vote him out. The Russians have no choice to say anything about him.
So again, people seeming to unite at least here in the capital, and these are more educated Georgians, more upper class, who have benefited from the economic bubble here who are standing behind their president in this moment of chaos and fear.
MONTAGNE: Thank you, Ivan. And let's go now back to Gregory Feifer in Moscow. What do you think, Greg, was the effect of statements made by the West, particularly President Bush saying Russia's actions were unacceptable, a strong statement, diplomat statement (unintelligible) affected - how much did that affect Russia's decision to announce a ceasefire?
FEIFER: Well, I think Russia has been following its own gameplan in terms of when it's decided to announce a ceasefire. I can tell you that Western statements, Western media coverage of what's been going on in Georgia has infuriated the Kremlin, in fact infuriated the country. I speak to Muscovites on the street, and almost unanimously they say that the West doesn't understand us, that we are the victims here, that we were - Russian forces went in to protect civilians in Georgia's pro-Moscow separatist regions.
One thing also that's become very clear is that it's Vladimir Putin who is running this country. He has been issuing the most hardline rhetoric, he has been establishing publicly Russia's policy throughout this conflict. And today, just before the president, before Dmitri Medvedev made his statement about withdrawing troops, or rather ceasing hostilities, the foreign minister reissued Russia's very hardline demands of Georgia, and one of them is that Russia wants to see President - Georgian President Saakashvili go, and I think that indicates to a lot of people that Putin is - that he is speaking for Putin here.
MONTAGNE: Greg, thanks very much. NPR's Gregory Feifer is in Moscow. Earlier we heard from NPR's Ivan Watson, who is in the capital of Georgia, Tbilisi. Thanks to both of you very much.
And today Russia's president ordered an end to Russian military operations in Georgia.
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