GORI, Georgia - The Associated Press
Russia announced to the West it would begin withdrawing forces from Georgia today after a war that dealt a humiliating blow to the Black Sea state and raised fears for energy supplies to Europe.
However, the decision was not enough for the U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates Sates, who said Russia is �showing signs of returning to its authoritarian past.�
French President Nicolas Sarkozy said yesterday that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev had told him by telephone that forces would begin leaving around midday on Monday.
Sarkozy, representing the European Union, said failure to pull out under a ceasefire deal would have "serious consequences" for ties with the EU.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel was in the Georgian capital yesterday, where she said the ex-Soviet republic will join NATO.
"Georgia will become a member of NATO if it wants to -- and it does want to," she said before talks with Saakashvili in Tbilisi.
It was one of the strongest statements yet of support for Georgia's NATO membership bid, which is fiercely opposed by Russia.
Merkel was in Tbilisi to support Saakashvili and press for the withdrawal of Russian troops who attacked Georgia on Aug. 8 to repulse an offensive by Georgian troops against a Moscow-backed separatist region.
Yesterday saw no evidence of fighting, but Russian troops continued to man a checkpoint into Gori, albeit with a reduced presence -- two armoured personnel carriers.
Major-General Vyacheslav Borisov, frontline commander around Gori, which lies 30 km (20 miles) beyond South Ossetia, told Reuters troops were already on the move. "You must understand there are a large amount of troops," he said.
Borisov said his soldiers were maintaining positions around Gori, a city controlling the approach to South Ossetia and the main east-west highway, to protect Russia's military pullout.
Months of tension between Georgia and its former Soviet master erupted on Aug. 7, when Tbilisi launched an assault to seize back control of the Russian-backed breakaway South Ossetia region. Russia said 1,600 civilians, many of them Russian citizens, were killed in the Georgian bombardment.
Russian troops fanned out beyond the boundaries of South Ossetia into the Georgian heartland, taking control of major centres including the strategically placed city of Gori in fierce fighting that lasted over five days. Both sides raised accusations of atrocities.
The Kremlin confirmed Sarkozy's announcement, made in Paris a day after Georgia and Russia sealed a ceasefire deal.
"From tomorrow, Russia will begin the withdrawal of the military contingent which was moved to reinforce Russian peacekeepers after the Georgian aggression against South Ossetia," it said in a statement.
But according to Gates, Russia is showing signs of returning to its authoritarian past. �"There's a real concern that Russia has turned a corner here and is headed back to its past rather than its future," Gates said yesterday. �Its invasion of Georgia will require the U.S. to re-evaluate the strategic relationship between the superpowers.�
Joining in the hard-line rhetoric, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice accused Medvedev of failing to honoring a promise to withdrawing troops quickly from Georgia under terms of a cease-fire he signed Saturday.
"I hope this time he'll keep his word," Rice said after Medvedev announced the withdrawal would begin today.
"The fact is we have worked hard to bring them (the Russians) into the community of nations. ... We thought they were headed in that direction," he added. "Now we have to re-evaluate all that."
First in, last out
Russia has made it clear it sees no prospect in the foreseeable future of South Ossetia, which broke with Tbilisi in 1992, being reintegrated into Georgia.
Talks are under way to establish international agreement on a peacekeeping force for South Ossetia.
South Ossetia and Georgia's other breakaway region, Abkhazia, enjoy the political backing of Russia. But Georgia has allied itself with the West, and has angered Moscow by pushing for membership of NATO.
The 10-day confrontation brought about the deaths of around 200 Georgians, dealt a crushing blow to the Georgian military, damaged the country's economy and drew criticism in the West of President Mikheil Saakashvili's handling of the crisis.
The Russian action rattled the West, which draws oil and gas through pipelines across Georgian territory from the Caspian region; a route favoured because it bypasses Russia. Some saw dark portents in Russia launching its first invasion of a former Soviet state since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.
Russia argued it was justified in intervening to protect South Ossetians, but Moscow also suffered losses, both human and economic. The campaign sent Russian stocks tumbling to their lowest in nearly two years and worried foreign investors.
Major-General Borisov, now a familiar figure touring the area of his command around Gori in his Georgian four-wheel- drive, could not say when he would be moving out. His president has also given no deadline for completion of the withdrawal, suggesting only that this depends on calm returning to the region.
"We were the first in, so we'll be the last out," said Borisov.