Surrender or else, Russia tells Georgia

The Kremlin on Tuesday night dictated humiliating peace terms to Georgia as the price for halting the Russian invasion of the small Black Sea country and its four-day rout of Georgian forces.

Faced with strong Western denunciation, President Dmitry Medvedev of Russia called a halt to the Russian offensive and negotiated terms for a truce and a broader settlement with President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, who, as chair of the European Union, rushed to the region to try to strike a deal on a ceasefire.

Early on Wednesday morning in Tbilisi, Georgia’s President, Mikheil Saakashvili, signalled his partial assent to the terms, announcing with Sarkozy that he had accepted the ceasefire. But Saakashvili raised questions about a continuing Russian military presence in Georgia and the prospects for any durable settlement looked uncertain.

”We do not yet have a peace deal, we have a provisional cessation of hostilities; but this is significant progress,” Sarkozy said after talks with Medvedev in Moscow and before taking the terms to Tbilisi. On Wednesday morning, Sarkozy predicted Saakashvili would accept Russian terms on the broader settlement.

Medvedev branded Saakashvili a ”lunatic” as he outlined tough terms to the French leader, in effect demanding Georgian capitulation to vastly superior Russian forces.

”The difference between lunatics and other people is that when they smell blood it is very difficult to stop them,” Medvedev said. ”So you have to use surgery.”

The key demands are that the Georgian leader pledges, in an agreement that is signed and legally binding, to abjure all use of force to resolve Georgia’s territorial disputes with the two breakaway pro-Russian provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia; and that Georgian forces withdraw entirely from South Ossetia and are no longer part of the joint ”peacekeeping” contingent there with Russian and local Ossetian forces.

Medvedev also insisted the populations of the two regions had to be allowed to vote on whether they wanted to join Russia, prefiguring a possible annexation that would enfeeble Georgia and leave Saakashvili looking crushed. If he balked at the terms, said Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s Foreign Minister: ”We will be forced to take other measures to prevent any repetition of the situation that emerged because of the outrageous Georgian aggression.”

Russian leaders consistently emphasise that Georgian forces perpetrated atrocities against civilians when Saakashvili gave the go-ahead last week for the bungled attempt to recapture South Ossetia.

The gamble triggered the onslaught which the United States State Department on Tuesday described as ”plain and simple blatant aggression on the part of Russia”.

Georgian forces have been part of the peacekeepers in South Ossetia for the past 15 years. But Russian leaders declared on Tuesday the Georgians would not return, and South Ossetia would be under Russian control.

”They shot their brother Russian peacekeepers, then they finished them off with bayonets, so we are not going to see them there any more,” said Dmitri Rogozin, ambassador to Nato in Brussels. Medvedev spoke by phone with the European Union foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, and told him ”there are a few things that need to be discussed to get a full ceasefire”, said a European official.

”The Russians are saying that they will never again accept Georgians in any form in South Ossetia. They see them as a Trojan horse that started the attacks last week.”

While Nato leaders in Brussels stressed that South Ossetia and Abkhazia were part of Georgia, Medvedev encouraged the secession of the two breakaway regions. ”Ossetians and Abkhaz must respond to that question taking their history into account, including what happened in the past few days,” he said.

Western officials at Nato, in the EU, in the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and in Washington, while calling for an immediate ceasefire, also demanded that Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity be upheld.

Following a meeting of Nato states on Tuesday, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, Nato Secretary General, accused Russia of not respecting Georgia’s territorial integrity. ”Abkhazia and Ossetia, if I mention territorial integrity, are to the best of my knowledge part of Georgia.” He added that ”Nato is not seeking a direct role or a military role in this conflict”.

For months, said European officials, Saakashvili had rejected pressure to commit to forgoing the use of force. But Lavrov said the Georgian army would have to be returned to bases, and that any peace deal would ”require the signing of a legally binding treaty on the non-use of force”.

The Russians have also agreed to withdraw their troops from Georgia proper and return their ”peacekeeping” contingent to positions held before the fighting. But until monitoring of the proposed ceasefire was up and running, the Russians reserved the right to take unspecified ”additional security measures” in Georgia.

While thousands rallied in support of Saakashvili on Tuesday outside Parliament in Tbilisi, there was a growing sense among many Georgians that his decision to attack had been a disastrous blunder — with Russia’s overwhelming response both predictable and highly costly.

”Why are people waving flags? It’s not as if we won,” Lasha Darkveldze (23) said as supporters thronged the centre of Tbilisi and marched on its freedom square. ”Saakashvili should now resign.”

”We hope he is going to disappear from Georgia,” Bacha Janashia (24), a student, said. ”I wonder why he did it. He has only 10 000 soldiers and he takes on Russia.”

If the Russian terms are demeaning, Saakashvili’s bargaining position is extremely weak given the virtual disintegration of his armed forces. Abandoned tanks litter the road between Tbilisi and Gori — dumped following Russia’s swift advance deep into Georgia on Monday.

In Gori, Russia’s ceasefire appeared to be holding on Tuesday afternoon after numerous air attacks. Russian planes bombed the town on Tuesday morning — killing at least five civilians including a Dutch TV journalist. —

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