ISTANBUL - TDN with wire dispatches
Georgia faced the growing likelihood of dismemberment yesterday as Moscow-backed separatists hardened demands for independence and Russian troops retained an iron grip.
Tens of thousands gathered in Sukhumi, capital of Abkhazia, and Tskhinvali, capital of South Ossetia, to demand Russian recognition of their independence.
Moscow has indicated it may give both recognition in a move that would risk sparking one of the deepest crises between Russia and the West since the Cold War.
Russia's upper house of parliament is to meet on the issue in emergency session Monday. Russia's decision on whether to recognize the independence of two Georgian separatist regions depends on the conduct of Georgia's leader, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was quoted as saying, according to Agence France-Presse.
The Russian troops that stormed into Georgia two weeks ago showed little sign of movement yesterday, although Moscow promises to withdraw them by the end of today. A checkpoint backed by a tank continued to block the main road from the capital Tbilisi to South Ossetia. Russia also intends to keep 500 troops in a security zone surrounding breakaway South Ossetia region, Foreign Ministry said.
Under a French-brokered peace plan an unspecified number of Russians will be allowed to remain in South Ossetia as "peacekeepers", a role they previously shared with Georgian troops prior to this month's conflict.
Both South Ossetia and Abkhazia look increasingly certain to slide definitively from Tbilisi's control and into Russia's orbit, dealing a huge blow to Georgia's pro-Western president, Mikheil Saakashvili.
The street demonstrations yesterday aimed to put a popular stamp on appeals made Wednesday by the separatist leaderships for Moscow to recognize their self-declared independence.
The separatist leader of Georgia's South Ossetia region yesterday called for Russia to recognize its independence. The local leadership will turn to Russia "with a request to recognize South Ossetia," Eduard Kokoity told a crowd of more than 1,000 gathered in a central square in the rebel capital Tskhinvali.
He called for a minute of silence "in the memory of the heroes, of our brothers and sisters savagely murdered by the bloody aggressor."
The current conflict is rooted in a bitter inter-ethnic struggle between Georgians and their Ossetian and Abkhaz minorities that dates back to the 1990s. But the situation immediately spiraled into an international crisis when Russia intervened after the Georgian attack.
Decision depends on Tbilisi:
Meanwhile, Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said yesterday that decision on whether to recognize the independence of two Georgian separatist regions depends on the conduct of Georgia's leader. Lavrov told Russian news agencies that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili "has the responsibility for what will happen next."
He also said that Russia is not planning to shut any doors in its relations with NATO.
"We are not going to shut the doors," he told reporters when asked how Russia would respond to NATO's decision this week to freeze contacts with Moscow over its military operation in Georgia.
"It all depends on NATO priorities: if they prefer to support the bankrupt Saakashvili regime to partnership with Russia, that will not be our fault," Lavrov said, referring to Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, as reported by Reuters.
"I can only say that Russia needs cooperation with NATO no more than NATO needs Russia," he added.