April 21, 2009, 8:28 p.m. |
AKHMAJI, Georgia (AP) -- At a military checkpoint between Georgia and its breakaway region of South Ossetia, the word "Russia" is hand-painted in pink on a concrete security barrier.
"It will be Russia," said a Russian army lieutenant as the Ossetian soldiers under his command nodded.
"And Georgia used to be Russian, too," said the young freckle-faced lieutenant, who would give only his first name, Sergei. Three armored personnel carriers and a tank were dug in around the checkpoint.
Russia has stationed its forces just 25 miles (40 kilometers) from the Georgian capital, in violation of the EU-brokered cease-fire that ended last year's brief war. And in recent weeks, it has sent even more troops and armored vehicles to within striking distance of the city ahead of street protests against Georgia's president.
The ongoing protests, which began April 9, drew about 10,000 people Tuesday, and opposition leaders said they would continue daily until President Mikhail Saakashvili resigned.
The demonstrations have been fed by public anger over Georgia's humiliating defeat in the August war, which left Russian troops on previously Georgian-controlled territory and drove tens of thousands of Georgians from their homes.
By reinforcing its military presence at a time of potential political instability, Russia appears determined to maintain pressure on Saakashvili, whom Moscow has openly said must be replaced before relations can be repaired.
Georgia's Western-leaning government, meanwhile, has accused the Kremlin of hoping to capitalize on political unrest to restore its influence over the former Soviet republic, which for almost 200 years was ruled by Moscow.
The presence of the Russian troops poses a dilemma for Washington as it aims to improve relations with Moscow. Georgia worries that the Obama administration will be reluctant to pressure Russia to comply with the cease-fire while seeking its cooperation on priority issues such as the war in Afghanistan and North Korea's nuclear program.
Tensions over Georgia also complicate efforts to restore ties between Russia and NATO, which broke off contacts following the war. Russia has strongly objected to NATO military exercises scheduled to begin May 6 in Georgia and has warned the United States against helping Georgia to rebuild its army.
The military checkpoint near Akhmaji enforces a new boundary between Georgia and South Ossetia, the Russian-supported region that was at the center of the fighting. After routing the Georgian army, Russian troops took over entire districts of South Ossetia that had long been under Georgian control.
Russian forces also occupied a new swath of territory in a second breakaway republic, Abkhazia, along the Black Sea coast.
The European Union and United States consider Russia to be in violation of the cease-fire signed by President Dmitry Medvedev, which called for troops to pull back to positions held before the war began.
Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, whose country takes the EU's rotating chairmanship in July, said this week that the EU has often pointed out to Russia that it is not in compliance and "will continue to point this out."
Russia, however, says the cease-fire has been superseded by separate agreements it has since signed with South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which Moscow now recognizes as independent states.
The confidence Russia has shown in ignoring the cease-fire reflects both its military strength on the ground and its willingness to challenge the West to reclaim a dominant role in Georgia and elsewhere in its former sphere of influence.
The Georgian government sees Russia as determined to prevent the West from considering Georgia as a reliable transit country for oil and gas. That, according to Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili, was Russia's main objective in the war.
The oil and gas pipelines that cross Georgian territory are among the few that bypass Russia in supplying Europe with energy from the Caspian and Central Asia. During the war, Russia bombed areas near the pipelines.
"Russia wants to be the monopoly supplier," said political analyst Shalva Pichkhadze.
Russia's Foreign Ministry confirmed that Russia sent reinforcements to the boundary lines and was conducting military exercises in South Ossetia, Abkhazia and also across the border in Russia.
Russia was responding to fears the Georgian government would provoke clashes to distract from the opposition protests, ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko said.
Georgia's Interior Ministry spokesman said Russia now has 15,000 troops in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which if true is far more than in past months. Since the beginning of April, Russia has moved 130 armored vehicles down toward the boundary line from elsewhere in South Ossetia, while 70 more have been moved into South Ossetia from Russia, ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili said.
Russia's Defense Ministry refused to comment on the composition of its forces in the breakaway regions, and Georgia's claims could not be independently verified. European Union and OSCE monitors who patrol the boundary lines are not allowed into South Ossetia or Abkhazia, and journalists also are stopped at the Russian checkpoints.
Peter Semneby, the EU special representative for the South Caucasus, said the Russian military presence was clearly "significantly larger" that it had been.
"The timing is peculiar," Semneby said. "It creates an additional source of nervousness and uncertainty."
Just before the main military checkpoint on the road north to Akhalgori, another Russian checkpoint controls access to the village of Akhmaji.
Georgian police maintain their own checkpoint about 100 yards (meters) away. From there, a half dozen tanks and other armored vehicles can be seen stretched across the valley, where trees are just starting to bud.
Local police chief Timur Burduli said the vehicles appeared during the first week of April, and were the Russian forces stationed closest to Tbilisi, the Georgian capital.
"A tank needs only 40 minutes," Burduli said.
Along the highway leading to Tbilisi, a freshly dug anti-tank trench stretches across a long flat field. Steve Bird, the spokesman for the EU monitors, said the Georgians have been building such defensive trenches in recent weeks.