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Abkhazia, South Ossetia Begin Joint Calls For Independence

  • RFE/RL

Russia's NTV showing the rally in Sukhumi

Russia's NTV showing the rally in Sukhumi

Rallies are being staged in the de facto capitals of Georgia's two breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia to demonstrate popular support for the territories' independence.

In Abkhazia, approximately 1,000 people gathered in a central Sukhumi square to back an independence appeal, submitted by President Sergei Bagapsh and approved by Abkhaz lawmakers on August 20.

Garik Samamba, the chairman of the Abkhaz parliament's Committee for the Defense of National Security, told RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service that the rally drew people from every district in Abkhazia.

"All of Abkhazia, all those who could, from every corner of Abkhazia, came to Freedom Square in Sukhum today," Samamba said. "Of course, those who are sick stayed at ahome, but most of the people were on the square today, expressing their will, expressing their view about our independence, which was in fact already vocalized in the 1999 referendum."

'No One Can Remain Untouched'

A similar rally is expected in Tskhinvali, followed by an open-air concert by St. Petersburg's Mariinsky Theater, whose director, Valery Gergiyev, is an ethnic Ossetian.

Gergiev is expected to conduct Shostakovich's "7th Symphony," a piece written by the composer to honor the city of Leningrad during its 900-day siege by Nazi forces during World War II. Speaking in the North Ossetian capital of Vladikavkaz, Gergiev explained his reasons for staging the Tskhinvali concert.

"No one can remain untouched by these events," he said. "And I wanted to do something that would express this tremendous emotion that is shared by absolutely everybody in Russia."

The independence bids appear to emphasize that it is a definitive break with Georgia, and not annexation by Russia, that is the desired goal. But Vyacheslav Tsugba, deputy speaker of Abkhazia's People's Assembly, told RFE/RL that Sukhumi sees Moscow as its sole protector from what he called Georgia's "genocide."

"Recent events in South Ossetia have shown that only Russia can protect small nations against Georgia's genocide," Tsugba said. "Russia is carrying out its peacekeeping duty. It has done everything to end this havoc and is now taking measures to deal with the aftermath of the humanitarian disaster."

Russia's upper house of parliament, the Federation Council, has called an emergency session for August 25 to discuss the independence appeals. The speaker of the council, Sergei Mironov, has strongly hinted that Russia is ready to give its approval.

Backing By West

Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which have enjoyed de facto independence since the early 1990s, currently have no international recognition and are formally considered part of Georgian territory. But Russia cites the recent unilateral independence declaration by the former Serbian province of Kosovo as setting the legal precedent for a similar move by Georgia's breakaway regions.

The West has steadfastly defended Georgia's territorial integrity throughout its crisis with Russia, which began on August 7 with clashes in South Ossetia. Any recognition by Moscow of Sukhumi and Tskhinvali's independence bids would spark massive discord between Russia and the West.

Fyodor Lukyanov, editor in chief of the Moscow-based journal "Russia in Global Affairs," tells RFE/RL's Russian Service that he does not expect Moscow to move quickly on a decision, however.

"If I were in Russia's place, I'd be very careful with what I promise," Lukyanov said. "The problem is that Russia's recognition of Abkhazia or both territories won't really change the situation. A formal recognition by Moscow alone is not enough to pull these territories out of isolation. For them -- particularly for Abkhazia -- the main issue is that they be recognized by at least a portion of the world community.

"Moscow is unlike the United States, which in the instance of Kosovo had the backing of a certain number of countries who recognized Kosovo," he continued. "Moscow doesn't have that possibility; no one is going to follow us. The prospects for international recognition in the instance of a unilateral act by Russia, in my view, are much more complicated. And the situation will end up, if not entirely, then at least partly at a dead end."

One thing is certain, however -- the current conflict between Russia and Georgia will have long-term consequences for relations between the two countries. In Russia, public opinion appears to be turning steadily against Tbilisi.

Polls Show Strong Support

Two polls conducted this week show strong public support in Russia for the government's actions in Georgia. According to a poll by the state-affiliated All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM), two-thirds of Russians blame the Georgian government and the United States for the conflict, while 72 percent agree Russian forces should stay in the conflict zone to prevent "a repeat attack, chaos, and genocide."

VTsIOM General Director Valery Fyodorov told RFE/RL's Russian Service the results show that for average Russians the conflict "is not about geopolitics, not a struggle for spheres of influence, it is a moral action, the defense of the weak, for whom no one but Russia will stand up."

A similar poll by the independent Levada Center found that 40 percent of Russians believe South Ossetia and Abkhazia should become part of the Russian Federation, while 30 percent think they should become independent. Almost no one agreed that the provinces should remain part of Georgia. Eighty percent said Russia should support South Ossetia in whatever way necessary. Thirty-eight percent said the conflict was the result of "the goal of [Georgian President] Mikheil Saakashvili to bolster his authority and remain as president," and a further 43 percent said it started because Georgia needs to settle the matter in order to join NATO.

Interpreting the Levada findings, center analyst Leonid Sedov said: "In these judgments in favor of South Ossetia and against Georgia, we see the readiness of our citizens to accept and support the official point of view and an ability to swallow enormous doses of unreliable and false information, combined with the absence of a willingness to subject that information to independent critical analysis."

It could also spell the political demise of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who came to power vowing to bring the separatists back under Tbilisi's control.

The independence appeals come amid continued uncertainty about Russia's military presence on the ground in Georgia proper.

Gori Growing Quieter

Even as Moscow says it has begun the promised pullback of its forces from inside Georgia, reports indicate Russian forces continue to occupy strategic positions around the country and show little sign of leaving.

Goga Aptsiauri, a reporter with RFE/RL's Georgian Service who is based in Gori, says Georgian authorities in the region have dismissed reports by Russian news agencies that 40 pieces of military hardware have been removed from the city. But Aptsiauri did say there were some signs that the situation in the city has grown quieter.

"Compared to the previous night, when there was lots of movement all night, it was a much quieter night," Aptsiauri reports. "This time, it was only around 3 a.m. when we heard the engines of military vehicles. And there were no explosions, like the previous night. The checkpoints that were reestablished late yesterday [August 20] -- including here in the city of Gori -- are still operating.

"I have to note, though, that the number of soldiers manning those checkpoints is down. I can already recognize soldiers by their appearance, so I know when those faces change," he contined. "I can say that all of the people who arrived yesterday were new soldiers. And the local authorities contacted them, and they said that most of them are ethnic Chechens, and they claimed that they came only to protect the city. I should stress that these are Russian Army regulars."

Moscow has promised to pull its forces back from Georgia proper by August 22 under an EU-sponsored cease-fire.

Controversial Buffer Zone

Much anxiety is centered around Russia's continued presence in a so-called buffer zone that extends several kilometers beyond the South Ossetian border into the rest of Georgia.

Russian military personnel say they reserve the right to extend the zone if it is deemed necessary for security reasons. Tbilisi worries the zones could be used by the Russian military to enforce an independence claim by South Ossetia or annexation by Russia.

U.S. NATO Ambassador Kurt Volker told RFE/RL on August 20 that Russia must withdraw from the buffer zone as soon as military monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) are on the ground.

The current OSCE chairman, Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb, arrives in Tbilisi on August 21 to advance plans for a monitoring mission.