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Russia May 'Intend To Cripple Georgian Economy'

Georgian infrastructure has taken a hit

Georgian infrastructure has taken a hit

International diplomatic activity appears to be making progress in the Russia-Georgia crisis, with Moscow saying today it will begin pulling back its troops on August 18.

But at the same time, sabotage of economic targets in Georgia -- and Russian forces seizing the area today around the Inguri power plant -- is raising fears that Russia may be seeking to cripple Georgia's economy. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel speaks with Robert Parsons, international affairs editor at France 24 and former head of RFE/RL's Georgian Service, who is in Georgia.

RFE/RL: German Chancellor Angela Merkel's message, made during her visit to Tbilisi on August 17, put additional pressure on Moscow as she said that Russian troops are not withdrawing from Georgia as quickly as the international community had hoped. How is her visit being seen in Tbilisi: as a sign that Europe is finally responding to Georgia's call for help, or as not enough of a response to the crisis?

Robert Parsons: Well, I think it is probably both of those things. Clearly, Georgians would be delighted if the Germans and the Europeans in general were to do more, but I think expectations on the Georgian side have been reduced in the last few days; they are more realistic now on what they can expect from the rest of the world, particularly the United States and the European Union.

However, having said that, there is no doubt that at a moment of enormous insecurity in Georgia, of almost existential insecurity in this country, the Georgians are enormously relieved when somebody of the stature of the German Chancellor Angela Merkel turns up in their capital city Tbilisi.

It's extremely important that somebody like Merkel should appear here and demonstrate not only Germany's solidarity with the Georgian people, but the EU's solidarity with the Georgian people, and go beyond that even and put pressure on the Russians to withdraw their troops a soon as possible; to remind the Russians of the commitments they have made under the cease-fire that both Dmitry Medvedev and Mikheil Saakashvili have signed; that they withdraw their troops from Georgia as soon as possible, and also to promise the Georgians that once things do start to normalize, that they will give significant financial assistance to help this country back on its feet again.

RFE/RL: Leaders of five former communist countries, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and now Germany's Merkel all have flown into Tbilisi in recent days in shows of support. And that is in addition to French President Nicolas Sarkozy's peace shuttle. Are any other world leaders expected in Tbilisi in the coming days ahead?

Parsons: Well, it has at times appeared like a carousel of world leaders passing through Tbilisi and there are rumors that others are on their way. There is a rumor today that British Prime Minister Gordon Brown might be coming, though that has not been confirmed. And certainly there does seem to be a deliberate policy on the part of the allies of Georgia to make sure that there is an almost constant procession of high-level leaders passing through this capital.

It is a reminder to the Russians that they are not just dealing with a tiny, far-away country about which many people have heard nothing, but with a country that is regarded as increasingly important to the West, not least because, of course, Georgia is a country through which oil passes, oil which is crucial to the economic security of the Western world, but also because of the importance that has been attached to Georgia by the United States in particular as an example of democratic developments

RFE/RL: As we know, Moscow said today it will begin withdrawing its regular forces from Georgia beginning August 18. What are these forces doing in Georgia now? Are they simply controlling roads, or are they dismantling Georgia's military structure in the regions near South Ossetia and Abkhazia?

Parsons: At his press conference today with Angela Merkel, the Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili said he had a meeting yesterday [August 16] with Russian generals, or a discussion rather, over the phone in which they said they were still considering two options and they hadn't decided which one it was going to be yet. Would they advance on Tbilisi and with all the consequences and implications that that would entail? Or would they retreat from the country and leave?

And yet, [Sakaashvili] said himself, there is another option as well, which the Russians are clearly considering and that is to destroy the infrastructure of Georgia to the point where there is almost nothing left, to the point where it would be almost impossible for Georgia to recover.

Georgian tanks confiscated in Gori are kept at bay in Tskhinvali

Yesterday we saw examples of that, for instance, the bombing of the Georgian railway line at a crucial bridge at the Mtkvari River [near Grakali]. Crucial not just for Georgia, one has to say, but to the economies of Azerbaijan and Armenia. Armenia is almost totally reliant on this railway to get its exports out to the Western world and to get its imports into Armenia. Azerbaijan is less reliant, but certainly a lot of its petrol still goes out, a lot of its oil, a lot of its gas, still goes out via that railway to the Georgian ports of Batumi and Poti.

By severing that link, Russia has deliberately vandalized a critically important element in the economies, not just of Georgia but of Azerbaijan and Armenia. And there have been various other examples as well. There was an attempt to blow up another railway bridge today [August 17] which was fortunately for the Georgians discovered in time. There have been bombings of Georgian infrastructure, there have been bombings of Georgian factories, to the point that Georgians have been questioning seriously whether the Russian intention is to cripple the Georgian economy.

RFE/RL: The Russians confirmed today that they have taken control of the area around the Inguri power plant. What is the significance of this?

Parsons: If you consider that a very high percentage of the electricity supply in Georgia comes from the Inguri plant, it is immediately obvious just how important Inguri is. If the Russians were to take control of it, they could effectively blackmail Georgia by switching off electricity supplies. It is very important for Georgia that that issue be very quickly resolved, as well, and that any future discussion over the fate of the Inguri power plant be internationalized.

Crisis In Georgia
For RFE/RL's full coverage of the conflict that began in Georgia's breakway region of South Ossetia, click here.