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Pullout Announced After Further Incursion

By Mikheil Svanidze
Monday, August 18
Russian troops will begin to pull out of Georgia proper from today, Russian President Medvedev said yesterday, after German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Russia and Georgia to discuss the practical implementation of the ceasefire. President Medvedev had signed a six-point ceasefire agreement on August 16, but was claiming there was no exact timetable for the withdrawal of Russian forces from Georgia.

“Starting tomorrow, Russia will begin to withdraw its military forces, which were deployed to support Russian peacekeepers due to Georgian Aggression against South Ossetia,” a statement on the official Kremlin website reads, though it adds that Russian forces will stay in the territory of the security zone and in South Ossetia. Merkel, heading to Tbilisi from Russia, reiterated that NATO’s decision on eventual Georgian membership hasn’t changed. She also noted that Russian troops must “immediately” pull out of Georgia.

United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had visited Tbilisi on August 15, negotiating the signing of the six-point ceasefire treaty by the Georgian side. President Saakashvili signed the agreement that day. Speaking afterwards at a joint press conference with Rice, Saakashvili slammed the European media and officials for their “muted reaction” when he spoke about Russia’s preparations for a military action against Georgia after April, as a result of Georgia been denied a Membership Action Plan (MAP) for NATO at a summit in Bucharest. Both The President and the Secretary of State clarified that talks on the implementation of an international monitoring mechanism on the ground would continue. They also claimed that the ceasefire plan did not guarantee the internationalization of this, as this would be the subject of subsequent talks.

The ceasefire plan itself, which was brokered by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and signed by the Georgian and Russian Presidents, continues to provoke debate. Georgian State Minister for Reintegration Issues Temur Iakobashvili claimed there were two versions of the document, one signed by the Presidents of Georgia and France, and the “Russian” one, signed by Medvedev and the Presidents of the breakaway republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Georgian officials reiterate that the document should be signed by the Russian and Georgian sides only, and the mediator, in front of President Sarkozy, who would thus be a witness.

The six-point plan commits the signatories not to resort to further force, declares a definitive end to the hostilities, opens a corridor for humanitarian aid, returns Georgian and Russian troops to their positions prior to the outbreak of hostilities and opens international talks on stability and security arrangements in Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The fifth point of this plan was subject to different interpretations. According to the document, “pending an international mechanism, Russian peacekeepers will undertake additional security measures”. According to various analysts, both Georgian and Western, this implies that Russian peacekeepers have the right to patrol the region outside the conflict area, south of South Ossetia, 3 to 15 kilometres inside Georgia proper. According to Georgian analyst Ramaz Sakvarelidze, Russian troops may thus stay in control of the vital highway connecting Georgia’s East and West.

“It seems as if they [Russian forces] will control a bigger zone than they did it was before [the outbreak of hostilities],” Sakvarelidze told The Messenger. “One of the aims of this operation was to take control of Georgia’s main transport routes and undermine Georgia’s importance as a transit corridor between East and West,” he said.

Russian President Medvedev said they he would not be against an international mechanism in the conflict zones, but observed that there was a need to ask breakaway regions’ administrations. “The problem is that Ossetians and Abkhazians do not have confidence in anyone else except Russia, because the history of last 15 years shows that the only troops capable of defending their interests are Russian troops,” he said. “For that reason, they consider that Russian troops are the only guarantors of their interests and this should be taken into account.”

Russian forces continue to occupy the city of Gori. Georgian National Security Council Chief Aleksandre Lomaia has been patrolling the town alongside the Russian forces for the last few days. Gori remains practically empty of civilians as a large part of its population has fled to Tbilisi. A railway bridge near Kaspi, a town between Gori and Tbilisi, was also blown up on August 16. Georgian officials blamed Russia, but Russian Deputy Chief of General Staff Anatoly Nogovistyn has strongly denied the accusation. “I can say with all honesty – this cannot be true,” Nogovitsyn said. “Now, at a time of ceasefire, why do we need to blow up bridges, when we should rebuild them?” The railway connects Tbilisi with various locations in Western Georgia, including Batumi and Zugdidi. The link with Armenia was also broken by this action, as many Armenian tourists take the Yerevan-Tbilisi-Batumi train to spend their holidays at the seaside.

Hostilities between Georgia and South Ossetia started late on August 7, as the Georgian side vowed to “restore constitutional order” in response to the alleged bombing of Georgian controlled villages in South Ossetia. The Russian and separatist sides claimed Georgia had begun a military invasion of South Ossetia and started a “peace enforcement operation”, ousting Georgian troops from the breakaway republic and breaking deep into Georgian territory, taking control of the towns of Poti, Senaki,Zugdidi and Gori.