Georgia’s president grudgingly signed a truce with Russia Friday, even as he denounced the Russians as invading barbarians and accused the West of all but encouraging them to overrun his country. A stone-faced Condoleezza Rice, standing alongside, said Russian troops must withdraw immediately from their smaller neighbor.
President Bush talked tough, too, accusing the Russians of “bullying and intimidation,” but neither he nor Rice said what the U.S. might do if Russia ignored them.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s press office had no information Friday night on whether he had signed the cease-fire agreement. Russia’s foreign minister assured Rice later that his country would implement the deal “faithfully,” a U.S. official said. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because Rice’s conversation was private, said Russia was likely to sign the deal Saturday.
As the secretary of state spoke in Tbilisi, Russian forces remained camped out just 25 miles away.
Associated Press reporters had seen a convoy of some 50 Russian army trucks and armored personnel carriers roar without warning southeast from the city of Gori on Wednesday, some shouting they were heading to Tbilisi, the Georgian capital. But they veered into a field outside the town of Igoeti and set up camp conspicuously within sight of the road. The Russians were still visible there Friday.
Emotional tirade Even as Rice stood with Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili in a show of solidarity, he asked, “Who invited the trouble here? Who invited this arrogance here? Who invited these innocent deaths here?”
Shaky and near tears following a difficult, nearly five-hour meeting with her, Saakashvili answered his own question: “Not only those people who perpetrate them are responsible, but also those people who failed to stop it.”
Rice let that pass, focusing instead on the demand that Moscow immediately withdraw its forces.
“With this signature by Georgia, this must take place and take place now,” she declared.
There was no immediate clue to the Russians’ intentions a week after their tanks and bombers attacked Georgia in retaliation for Georgia’s attempt to retake a disputed province by force.
Russian troops allowed some humanitarian supplies into the strategic city of Gori but otherwise continued their blockade.
The cease-fire document sets out no specific penalties or deadlines. It contains concessions to Russia that Saakashvili obviously found hard to swallow. Russia could retain peacekeeping forces in the separatist region of South Ossetia and another breakaway region, Abkhazia, and the forces would have a broader mandate in South Ossetia.
U.S.: Consequences to come
Even if Russia fully complies with the cease-fire, the Bush administration says there will be more consequences to come. Bush’s advisers are settling on penalties that would be intentionally modest and subtle, such as continuing to exclude Russia’s foreign minister from discussions among his counterparts in elite gatherings of the world’s leading economies.
The idea is to give Moscow the diplomatic cold shoulder while offering face-saving leeway for Russia to turn away from a mentality the West sees as throwback to its empire days. Russia would then have motivation, and some wiggle room, to seek inclusion in Western economic, political and security institutions.
In Washington, Bush accused Russia of resorting to thuggery from another era. He insisted the United States will not abandon Georgia, a Western-leaning democracy on Russia’s southern flank and once part of the old Soviet Union.
“Bullying and intimidation are not acceptable ways to conduct foreign policy in the 21st century,” Bush said. “Only Russia can decide whether it will now put itself back on the path of responsible nations or continue to pursue a policy that promises only confrontation and isolation.”
Russian withdrawal from Gori, in the center of Georgia proper, would be a major sign that Russia is not trying to hold permanent sway in Georgia or topple its enthusiastically pro-American government. By holding Gori, Russia holds the small country’s only major east-west highway and effectively slices Georgia in half.
The peace pact was worked out earlier in the week by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and both sides had said they agreed to it.
'We will rebuild' Russian forces remained, however, and U.S. officials said the document would take effect once it was formally signed Friday. It tells both sides to pull their forces back to the positions they held before fighting broke out last week in South Ossetia.
Saakashvili’s tirade and the forceful words from Bush in Washington suggested that a week into the crisis, both leaders were reassessing how they got here.
“We will rebuild,” Saakashvili said. “We want them out. I want the world to know, never, ever will Georgia reconcile with occupation of even one square kilometer of its sovereign territory. Never, ever.”
His leadership is founded on a close alliance with Washington that has always exasperated Moscow.
Bush gave his most sustained explanation of U.S. action during the crisis, saying the conflict is about much more than a small country far away. Bush made clear the real fight is about the power and ambition of nuclear-armed Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union and Russia’s resurgence as an energy dynamo.
“The Cold War is over. The days of satellite states and spheres of influence are behind us,” Bush said at the White House, before a vacation delayed by the crisis. “A contentious relationship with Russia is not in America’s interest, and a contentious relationship with America is not in Russia’s interest.”
Rice sees productive dayRice said the time had come “to begin a discussion of the consequences of what Russia has done. This calls into question what role Russia really plans to play in international politics.”
Rice was flying to Texas, where she was to give Bush a firsthand account of her diplomatic mission.
Apparently concerned that her awkward news conference with Saakashvili had set the wrong tone, Rice spoke briefly on her own before leaving Georgia.
“It’s obviously a very emotional time here in Georgia,” she said after visiting wounded people in a hospital.
“It’s clearly a very emotional time, but I think that it should still be seen that this was a productive day. I hope now that peace can return to Georgia and Georgians can return to a normal life.”