DUSHANBE, Tajikistan (AP) – China and several Central Asian nations rebuffed Russia‘s hopes of international support for its actions in Georgia, issuing a statement Thursday denouncing the use of force and calling for the respect of every country’s territorial integrity.
A joint declaration from the six-member Shanghai Cooperation Organization also offered some support for Russia’s “active role in promoting peace” following a cease-fire, but overall it appeared to increase Moscow’s international isolation.
Russia’s search for support in Asia had raised fears that the alliance would turn the furor over Georgia into a broader confrontation between East and West, pitting the U.S. and Europe against their two main Cold War foes.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev had appealed to the Asian alliance, which is made up of China, Russia and four ex-Soviet Central Asian nations, for unanimous support of Moscow’s response to Georgia’s “aggression.”
But the alliance, which was created in 2001 to improve regional coordination on terrorism and border security, opted to take a neutral position and urged all sides to resolve the conflict through “peaceful dialogue.”
“The participants … underscore the need for respect of the historical and cultural traditions of each country and each people, and for efforts aimed at preserving the unity of the state and its territorial integrity,” the alliance’s statement said.
None of the other alliance members joined Russia in recognizing the independence claims of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, in an interview with CNN, accused the U.S. of orchestrating the conflict in Georgia to provide a talking point in the American presidential campaign. The White House press secretary Dana Perino called the claims “patently false.”
Russia’s decision to recognize Georgia’s separatist regions Tuesday sparked another storm of criticism from the West because both provinces make up roughly 20 percent of Georgia’s territory. The West had already criticized Russia for what it calls a disproportionate use of force in fighting this month with Georgia, its small southern neighbor that wants to join NATO.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Robert Wood expressed satisfaction about the Asian group’s statement, saying “it wasn’t what I would call an endorsement of Russia’s recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.”
China has traditionally been wary of endorsing separatists abroad, mindful of its own problems with Tibet and Muslims in the western territory of Xinjiang. The joint statement, which was unanimously endorsed, made a point of stressing the sanctity of borders – two days after Russia sought to redraw Georgia’s territory.
The Asian alliance’s statement offered some praise of Moscow’s actions, at least in the context of the peace deal signed five days after the war began Aug. 7. The alliance said it supports “the active role of Russia in promoting peace and cooperation in the given region.”
The four Central Asian members of the group – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan – all seemed reluctant to damage their relations with Europe and the U.S.
Kazakhstan enjoys significant Western investment in its rich hydrocarbon sector, and impoverished Kyrgyzstan earns $150 million in aid and rent for hosting a U.S. air base that supports military operations in Afghanistan.
The alliance conducts joint military exercises and aspires to become a counterweight to NATO. In 2005, its members called for a timetable for U.S. forces to leave Central Asian bases the U.S. uses to support operations in Afghanistan.
Despite continuing Western protests and a visit by U.S. warships to Georgia’s Black Sea coast, Russian troops remain at checkpoints inside areas controlled by Georgia prior to the recent conflict.
While a cease-fire agreement calls for both sides to withdraw to their previous positions, the Kremlin says the agreement allows Russian forces to occupy “security zones” outside the rebel regions.
In a rare gesture of conciliation, Russian forces turned over 12 Georgian soldiers on the border of Abkhazia. The Georgians were seized Aug. 18 and paraded – blindfolded and hands tied behind their backs– on top of Russian armored vehicles.
The soldiers appeared unharmed Thursday, and some were smiling.
But there was also new conflict in the region. South Ossetia claimed to have shot down an unmanned Georgian spy plane that was scouting the skies over the republic. Georgia denied the report and its parliament later urged the country’s leadership to break off diplomatic relations with Russia, calling it an “aggressor country.”
Russia responded to Georgia’s military offensive on South Ossetia by sending hundreds of tanks rolling into the rebel region, pushing Georgian troops out of South Ossetia’s capital, Tskhinvali, before driving deep into Georgia proper.
The West accuses Russia of excessive force in response to the Georgian offensive, of failing to meet its troop withdrawal commitments under an EU-brokered cease-fire and of violating international law in recognizing the two separatist regions.
In Vienna, Georgian Foreign Minister Eka Tkeshelashvili said Russian forces and their armed allies have driven all Georgians out of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and were now ethnically cleansing villages in other areas of Georgia. Russia denied the charge.
Associated Press Writers Jim Heintz and Misha Dzhindzhikhashvili in Tbilisi, Georgia; and Catrina Stewart, Nataliya Vasilyeva, David Nowak, Doug Birch and Steve Gutterman in Moscow contributed to this report.