- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 8, 2010

On the second anniversary of the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia, the government in Tbilisi has accepted Russian occupation of their provinces — for now.

Georgia’s state minister for reintegration, Temuri Yakobashvili, said in an exclusive interview that there were contacts between his offices and the de facto authorities in the breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and he was focusing on ways to integrate the economies and populations of Georgia and the provinces that are still hosting close to 10,000 Russian soldiers.

“I don’t have a crystal ball to tell you about the timeline,” Mr. Yakobashvili told The Washington Times. “These are necessary ingredients and policies to deal with a population living under occupation. We have to deal with the population anyway. It will take five years, 15 years or three years, I don’t know. It’s politics. I believe this does not have to take as long as the unification of Germany after World War II, but it’s not going to happen overnight, either.”

His view in some ways differs from the Georgian government’s position in the aftermath of the war with Russia that began Aug. 7, 2008, when Georgian troops entered South Ossetia, a province that has sought independence from Georgia since the era of the Soviet Union. Russian troops poured into Georgia on Aug. 8, and Russian troops have stayed in South Ossetia and Abkhazia to this day. The local South Ossetian defense minister is a former colonel in the Russian military.

In 2008 and 2009, President Mikhail Saakashvili tried to rally the international community to pressure Russia to abide by a French-brokered cease-fire requiring all troops to return to prewar positions. Russia, however, has kept its soldiers in the Georgian territories and has started to build permanent bases.

On the diplomatic front, Moscow recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia shortly after the war and has encouraged allies to do the same.

Deputy Foreign Minister Giga Bokeria, in an interview, said Georgians today view the war as a victory, in the sense that Russia did not succeed in toppling the Saakashvili government and their country is still politically independent from Moscow.

“It has never been about the struggle in the provinces. It was about the whole country,” he said. “Those occupied territories are an instrument for Russia to get back control of the region.”

For now, a higher priority for Georgia is a diplomatic campaign to persuade other states not to recognize the independence of the two provinces hosting Russian soldiers.

Last month, the International Court of Justice recognized the independence of Kosovo, a majority Albanian province of Serbia that former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic attempted to cleanse of Albanians.

Russia historically supported Serbia and Milosevic, who died while awaiting trial for war crimes at The Hague. But after the court decision was announced last month, senior Russian officials said it set a precedent for Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The United States and Britain said the decision was a special case because of the Serbian history in Kosovo and would not apply to other conflicts.

Mr. Yakobashvili said in the interview that the Russian interpretation of the opinion is in error.

“The ethnic cleansing in Abkhazia and South Ossetia was of Georgians, not of Russians. There were no U.N. forces in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In Kosovo, there was an opportunity for them to repatriate. I think bringing up these cases only illustrates there are no parallels whatsoever. If there are parallels, it is between Kosovo and Chechnya,” the minister said.

Chechnya, a mostly Sunni Muslim region in the North Caucasus, has fought for independence from Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Over the weekend, Mr. Saakashvili attended the inauguration ceremony for Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos. Two Latin American countries, Nicaragua and Venezuela, have recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Mr. Bokeria said the purpose of the president’s visit was “to deepen ties within Latin America.” He also said the outgoing Colombian president, Alvaro Uribe, “deserves praise” in part for fighting a successful counterinsurgency against the Colombian rebels known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

By contrast, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev visited Abkhazia on Sunday and pledged $330 million to the two provinces for infrastructure such as roads and power plants.

“The decision was difficult, but I don’t regret anything,” the Russian president said. “If it hadn’t been for the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, we wouldn’t be having coffee here now. Everything would have developed into a long, bloody conflict.”

While the Russian position may be hardening, the Obama administration may be strengthening its support for Georgia after more than a year of trying to reset relations with Russia. Earlier this summer, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton visited Georgia and said Russia’s troop presence in the two provinces was an “occupation.”

Over the weekend, Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, said in an opinion piece that it is time to begin selling Georgia defense-weapons systems like anti-tank air defenses and early-warning radar. Almost all American arms sales to Georgia have been suspended since the 2008 war. The senator also recommended that President Obama withhold support for Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization in order to pressure Mr. Medvedev to comply with the 2008 cease-fire agreement.

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