- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 18, 2006

A top State Department official denied yesterday that the Bush administration supported a Russian-backed U.N. resolution critical of Georgia last week in order to win Moscow’s support for a package of sanctions against North Korea over its nuclear missile test.

But with tensions between Moscow and Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital, escalating sharply over the past month, two top Georgian lawmakers expressed disappointment with the U.S. vote and said it would only help Russia’s long-term goal of “regime change” in its small southern neighbor.

“We are grateful to our friends that [the resolution] was not as bad on the one Russia originally proposed, but we were certainly not happy with it,” said Nikoloz Rurua, deputy chairman of the committee on defense and security in Georgia’s parliament.

“It misrepresents the facts of our dispute, and even worse, it could be perceived by Russians as giving them a license to act freely in the future. That is the greatest danger,” he said yesterday in Washington.

The Georgia resolution was adopted just before the U.N. Security Council voted unanimously to sanction North Korea. But U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried told reporters on a visit to Tbilisi yesterday there was no horse-trading over the two votes.

“To say that the United States traded something for something else is an absurd allegation without any foundation,” said Mr. Fried, who rejected the suggestion the resolution was a “defeat for Georgia.”

The resolution renewed the expiring mandate of a U.N. observer group monitoring the standoff between Georgia’s central government and the Russian-backed separatist enclave in Abkhazia. Russia has long offered diplomatic and military backing to Abkhazia.

But the new resolution included new, Russian-backed language that called on Georgia to refrain from “militant rhetoric” and “provocative” actions in the Kodori Gorge, a disputed region on the unofficial border with Abkhazia that Georgian troops reclaimed in a bloodless operation in July. The U.N. text also praised the “stabilizing role” of Russian troops stationed in Abkhazia as a “peacekeeping force.”

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John R. Bolton issued a statement after Friday’s vote defending the Kodori operation as an “exercise of Georgia’s sovereign right.” He expressed regret that Moscow had pushed the critical Georgia resolution without coordinating with Western countries trying to resolve the standoff.

U.S. diplomats say they were able to soften an earlier Russian text that criticized the July Kodori operation and demanded Georgian troops withdraw.

Always tense Georgia-Russia relations have deteriorated in recent days over Moscow’s furious reaction to the very public arrest and expulsion of four Russian officers on espionage charges last month. Russia cut transportation and postal links with Georgia in retaliation, and began what critics say is a targeted harassment campaign against Georgians living in Russia.

Despite Mr. Fried’s denials, many in Georgia and Russia see the U.N. vote as the price the United States paid for the North Korea resolution. Both Georgian President Mikhail Saakhashvili and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov reportedly lobbied Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in advance of the vote.

Mr. Saakhashvili told reporters in Tbilisi after the vote that Moscow “pushed all of its efforts towards exchanging its support for Western countries over North Korea and Iran for a carte blanche on the resolution on Georgia.”

George Bokeria, deputy chairman of the Georgia parliamentary committee on legal issues, said, “Russia’s ultimate goal is regime change in Georgia, and this vote was blackmail to help them achieve that goal.”

He added, “If the West keeps giving into blackmail, Moscow will keep doing it over and over.”

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