Sunday, August 17, 2008
“Georgia will become a NATO member if it wants to, and it does want to,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in an apparent change in Germany’s position during her Sunday visit to Tbilisi, Georgia. Merkel’s statement of support for Georgia’s NATO membership was one of the strongest yet. Tbilisi’s bid to join NATO is fiercely opposed by Moscow.
During her meeting with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, Merkel stated that Georgia’s territorial integrity and its independence have to be respected. After the meeting Merkel said she expected a ‘very prompt’ withdrawal of Russian forces from Georgia.
In a telephone conversation with French president Nicolas Sarkozy on Sunday, Russian president Dmitry Medvedev declared that Russian troops would start their pullout from Georgia on Monday. Medvedev explained that Russian troops would be withdrawing to a buffer zone and then to the breakaway province of South Ossetia. It remains unclear how long the withdrawal will take. Sarkozy warned Medvedev on Sunday of serious consequences and damage to the Russian relations with the EU, if Russia failed to fully implement the peace plan it signed. Earlier this week, Britain’s Foreign Secretary David Miliband stated that the EU should reassess its relations with Russia after its aggressive actions in Georgia.
A Russian lawmaker has compared the situation in Georgia to Iraq and the U.S. presence there. Konstantin Kosachev, chair of the Russian parliament’s security committee told reporters when asked about the withdrawal plan: “If I would ask you in response to the same question how fast the American forces can leave Iraq, for example, the answer would be as soon as we have guarantees for peace and security there.”
At the same time, according to Georgian sources, the Russian troops were occupying 13 Georgian villages, pushing the border of Abkhazia into Georgia proper. Russia’s Defence Ministry spokesman denied the report, saying that “Russian peacekeepers have been given no orders to move to these populated areas,”. There have also been reports of Russian helicopters setting fire to Georgian National Park near Borzhomi. The Russian Defence Ministry’s spokesman expressed his surprise and declared that Russian troops were ready to provide assistance in extinguishing the fire if Georgia made an official request. “It is understandable to us that the Georgian authorities are ready to blame the Russian side for any natural disasters on the territory of Georgia,” he said.
Russian troops are still occupying the key towns of Gori, north of Tbilisi, and Senako in the west of Georgia. Far from pulling out, Russian military units are entrenching themselves in new positions deeper into Georgia, according to Daily Telegraph. They have also blown up a strategic Georgian Kaspi railway bridge on the main line connecting the country to its neighbours, essentially severing the last route for freight and trade after Russian soldiers also took control of the Georgian main east-west highway.