Bowing to the reality of vastly superior military might, the Georgian president said Tuesday that he would accept a Russian cease-fire agreement to end a five-day conflict, despite terms that some described as humiliating to his small, proud nation.
President Mikheil Saakashvili, while at times seeming defiant, appears to have all but given up his bid to reclaim two disputed regions on the Russian border. Russia, which said it had suspended a campaign that routed Georgia’s U.S.-trained military, continued bombing sites deep in the country hours later.
At a rally attended by thousands of people in Tbilisi, Saakashvili pledged that one day Georgia would beat Russia.
“I promise you today that I’ll remind them of everything they have done and one day we will win,” he said, according to Reuters.
But analysts said the peace proposal, backed by France and the European Union, left no doubt that Russia won the military conflict of the last several days.
Russia clearly saw the conflict as an opportunity to reassert dominance over an area that it views as part of its historical sphere of influence. Georgia is a former Soviet republic that gained independence with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Russia has watched with increasing fury as Georgia and other former Soviet states have developed close ties with the United States and Western Europe.
Saakashvili’s announcement that he would accept the cease-fire agreement followed hours of military positioning between the Russians and Georgians and diplomatic maneuvering by Western leaders, notably French President Nicolas Sarkozy, to defuse the crisis.
Sarkozy met behind closed doors in Moscow with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, after which Medvedev proposed a six-part peace deal that called for Georgia to return its troops to the positions they occupied before the outbreak of hostilities over control of the pro-Russian enclave of South Ossetia. It called for Georgia’s leader to sign a “legally binding document” vowing not to use force and to agree to talks about the future status of South Ossetia and a second secessionist region, Abkhazia, in northwestern Georgia.
Those moves essentially would mean that Georgia would give up claims to the two Russian-backed separatist regions, which lie within Georgia’s internationally recognized border, analysts said. Both regions have broken from Georgian control, and Saakashvili had made a priority of bringing them back.
Sarkozy shuttled from Moscow to Tbilisi, the Georgian capital. He and Saakashvili told reporters at a late-night news conference that they had persuaded Medvedev to drop language referring to future talks about South Ossetia, but Russian news accounts noted no such changes.
Saakashvili also told reporters that he agreed to the “general principles” of the deal but said he saw no reason to sign it as it was only a “political document,” the Associated Press reported.
Medvedev, a close ally of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, had already announced a halt to his country’s military counteroffensive against Georgia, which defied Russia last week by launching an attack on South Ossetia. Medvedev said Russian troops would return to their previous positions.
Putin said the Russian “peacekeeping contingent” had accomplished its goal, according to Russia’s Interfax news agency. “The aggressor has been punished, and its armed forces have been disorganized.”
One Georgian analyst called the conditions proposed by Russia humiliating because, among other things, they did not mention maintaining the country’s territorial integrity.
“We have no other choice because no other country came to our aid,” said Alexander Rondeli, president of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies.
The Bush administration responded cautiously. Speaking outside the White House after briefing President Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the U.S. was still awaiting a cessation of Russia’s offensive.
“The Russians need to stop their military operations, as they have apparently said that they will, but those military operations really do now need to stop, because calm needs to be restored,” Rice said.
Although there were steps toward calm, the situation remained volatile. A Dutch television journalist was killed in a bombing in the central Georgian city of Gori, according to Reporters Without Borders, a media advocacy group. Stan Storimans, 39, became the fourth journalist killed in five days of fighting.
Witnesses and medical personnel said Russia bombed Gori’s main square and primary thoroughfare, hitting the post office, military hospital and university.
There also was heavy bombing and shelling in surrounding Georgian villages. Casualties poured into Republic Hospital on the edge of Tbilisi, which is now entirely dedicated to casualties from the front. Ordinarily a 200-bed hospital, the facility was enlarged to 300 beds after its staff reopened a defunct wing and moved extra cots into the rooms.
“It was horrible,” said Tamro Kakashvili, who was baking bread Tuesday morning when a bomb hit her house in the village of Variani, near Gori. “Everything fell on my head. All of my body was buried in soil and mud.”
The Associated Press reported that a convoy of 135 Russian military vehicles was moving from Abkhazia toward positions held by Georgia in the western section of the mountainous nation.
Reuters reported that pro-Moscow forces in Abkhazia had pushed back Georgian troops and taken control of the upper part of the Kodori Gorge, a narrow strip cutting into Abkhazia.
Humanitarian aid began to flow into the region, as both the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations refugee agency airlifted supplies to Georgia. The U.N. agency estimated that as many as 100,000 people had been driven from their homes, at least temporarily.
Even if a temporary calm takes hold, securing a lasting peace may prove difficult.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters Tuesday that Moscow rejects Saakashvili as a partner in peace discussions.
“I don’t think Moscow will be in the mood . . . even to speak to Saakashvili,” Lavrov said at a news conference, according to Interfax. “He has committed crimes against our citizens. Our position is that Mr. Saakashvili can no longer be our partner. He’d better quit.”
But analysts in Tbilisi said the Russian offensive had rallied even Saakashvili’s opponents around him, giving him a temporary boost in popularity that probably will fade down the road.
In Tbilisi, thousands of demonstrators holding white-and-red Georgian flags took to the streets, honking their horns and cheering speeches by Saakashvili and others.
“Georgia! Georgia!” they chanted. The mood was defiant.
Both sides accused the other of “ethnic cleansing” in the conflict zone, and Georgia filed suit at the International Court of Justice.
Broad geopolitical issues underlie the conflict, which is ostensibly over control of two economically listless and sparsely populated enclaves that nonetheless remain strategically significant.
“The Russians think in terms of spheres of interest, and they think of the south Caucasus as part of their sphere of influence,” said Sabine Freizer, a Russia expert at the International Crisis Group, a Brussels conflict-resolution advocacy organization.
Russian officials and media have stressed that Georgia was the aggressor, and have depicted the Russian military response as a humanitarian mission to protect civilians in South Ossetia.
The conflict also has been cast as a defense against U.S. influence in the region, with some suggesting that the Bush administration backed, or even planned, the Georgian offensive.
“I am sure that this would not happen without consent of the U.S.,” former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev told the official Itar-Tass news agency. “This was with its approval.”
The United States has denied any involvement, beyond ferrying two planeloads of Georgian soldiers from Iraq to Georgia after the start of hostilities.
Bush has forcefully objected to Russia’s military moves as disproportionate to the perceived Georgian transgression.
The Reuters news agency said the United States canceled a joint naval exercise with Russia to show its disapproval of Moscow’s military actions in Georgia.
Republican presidential contender Sen. John McCain used a rally in York, Pa., to give a full-throated denunciation of Russia and call for a multinational peacekeeping force in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
McCain said that he had spoken to Saakashvili on Tuesday morning and that the Georgian president had asked him to thank the American people for their support.
“I told him that I know I speak for every American when I said to him, ‘Today, we are all Georgians,’ ” McCain said.
Presumed Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama, vacationing in Hawaii, released a statement calling on Moscow to defuse the conflict. “Russia must halt its violation of Georgian airspace and withdraw its ground forces from Georgia, with international monitors to verify that these obligations are met,” it said.
Times staff writers Megan K. Stack in Tbilisi, Seema Mehta in York, Pa., Peter Spiegel in Washington and Mitchell Landsberg in Los Angeles and special correspondent Svetlana Shirokova in Moscow contributed to this report.