Russian pomp and dominance
Russian flags waved and Russian music was performed at a patriotic concert Thursday in this war-torn city, the capital of Georgia’s breakaway republic of South Ossetia, as Moscow and its loyalists tightened their grip on territory that was the focus of clashes this month.
In front of a badly damaged government building, a Russian orchestra performed pieces by Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich as 1,000 or so residents held up candles and the flags of Russia and South Ossetia, the catalyst in this month’s conflict between Russia and Georgia.
“We are here today to express our admiration for you, to tell the whole world that we want it to know the truth about the horrible events in Tskhinvali,” Valery Gergiev, an ethnic Ossetian Russian and well-known conductor who led the orchestra, told those gathered.
The concert was among the latest measures by Moscow to assert authority over territory that is technically part of Georgia, a small, staunchly pro-American Caucasus Mountains state that enraged Russia by pushing to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and attacking Russian positions in South Ossetia.
Moscow’s punishment of Georgia extends beyond South Ossetia. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Thursday that a contingent of 500 troops would remain at eight posts in Georgia proper, well outside South Ossetia, a pro-Moscow enclave that has been at odds with the central government in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital.
If implemented, the plan would indefinitely place Russian soldiers where they could move against Georgian forces at a moment’s notice. It would mean Russian troops would be deployed along Georgia’s main east-west road, just outside the key transportation hub of Gori, near the country’s railway line and the crucial U.S.-backed pipeline pumping Caspian Sea crude oil to tankers off the Turkish coast.
At a contentious meeting Thursday of the United Nations Security Council, Western envoys pressed Russia to clarify the role of the soldiers it intends to keep on Georgian soil.
“We have a presence of so-called Russian peacekeepers in key Georgian choke points that will control economic life, that will control humanitarian activities,” Alejandro Wolff, the deputy U.S. representative to the U.N., said after the closed session. “It raises the question whether this is an effort to strangle the Georgian state.”
The council is debating a Russian draft resolution that would endorse a cease-fire deal permitting a continued Russian military presence in a vaguely defined security zone in and around South Ossetia. Western diplomats are insisting that Russia accept limits on its troops and recognize the region as part of Georgia.
Russian peacekeepers have long been stationed inside South Ossetia and Abkhazia, another enclave that seeks independence from Georgia and has been largely autonomous since the early 1990s. Both Georgian and Russian troops held sway over their checkerboard of ethnic areas.
But since the current conflict broke out Aug. 7, Russian troops and allied militias have taken over all parts of South Ossetia, including the mostly ethnic Georgian areas.
Russian troops and South Ossetian militiamen now guard the entrance to the town of Akhalgori, formally a part of South Ossetia but controlled by Georgia since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Ethnic Georgian families could be seen fleeing the area in rickety Lada automobiles. The patriarch of one family said they had not been threatened or forced to leave but felt compelled to anyway, because the town was under the control of the South Ossetian militia.
“We’re making a peaceful protest to ask the Russians to leave,” said Lamara Gulashvili, a high school teacher attending a rally Thursday outside the Akhalgori checkpoint.
Demonstrators waved red-and-white Georgian flags, but Georgian police refused to allow them to approach, saying they were under orders not to allow a confrontation.
Russians offered different and confusing predictions on when their forces would leave the parts of Georgia that are neither in dispute nor inside their claimed security zone, including Gori, in the center, and the port city of Poti, where Russians have set up a checkpoint leading to Georgia’s main Black Sea access point.
Russian army Gen. Vladimir Boldyrev, commander of ground forces, said it would take 10 days for soldiers “not involved in peacekeeping operations” to return to Russia. Meanwhile, Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov said Russian troops were to begin moving by 6 a.m. today and finish by the end of the day, according to the Interfax news agency.
Lavrov, who spoke in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi, said that Russia’s withdrawal began several days ago but that Western nations “seem to be reluctant to notice it.”
His assertion contradicted the accounts of most Georgian and independent observers. At a recently established Russian outpost near the town of Igoeti, about 25 miles west of Tbilisi, a Russian truck filled with military cots pulled up and soldiers started unloading equipment.
“Here in the city we have not seen signs of Russians leaving,” Alexander Lomaia, Georgia’s national security advisor, said in a phone conversation from Gori on Thursday. “They promised to pull out by the end of tomorrow.”
Russians have ruled out a return of the breakaway regions to Georgian control.
“We have deserved to live in an independent republic,” Eduard Kokoity, the pro-Moscow leader of South Ossetia, said at a rally, according to Interfax.
Times staff writer Robinson Chavez reported from Tskhinvali and Daragahi from Akhalgori and Tbilisi. Staff writer Sergei L. Loiko in Moscow contributed to this report.