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The Warsaw Voice » Politics » September 3, 2008
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Crisis in the Caucasus
September 3, 2008 By W.Ż.    
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The brief but violent Russian-Georgian conflict and Russia's subsequent official recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia's independence has caused alarm around the world. From the start of the crisis, Poland has taken Georgia's side, with the Polish president strongly condemning Russia. The government has been more cautious.

"We have agreed with the president that we will present a uniform stance together," said Prime Minister Donald Tusk Aug. 29 after a meeting with President Lech Kaczyński about a special European Union summit to discuss the situation in Georgia. "We will go to Brussels together. For obvious reasons, the president will head the delegation." Tusk said he had presented his proposals regarding Georgia and the president had accepted them. Poland's plan of assistance for Georgia involves humanitarian aid and joint EU efforts to rebuild Georgia.

"We want to appoint international forces under the auspices of the EU," said Tusk, who did not rule out that Polish soldiers would be part of international peacekeeping forces in the region of the conflict. These forces, according to the Polish prime minister, should focus on observation and maintaining order. "Political dialogue is also needed. The EU should play a part in maintaining Georgia's territorial integrity," Tusk said. He said he was also in favor of an "association agreement" between the EU and Georgia and of making it easier for Georgians to obtain visas to travel in EU countries.

Earlier, Piotr Kownacki, deputy head of the President's Office, said the position presented at the summit by the Polish delegation would be the joint position of Poland and three Baltic states, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. To work out details, Kaczyński met with these countries' leaders in Tallinn a few days before the Brussels summit.

Since the crisis broke out, Poland has been one of the most vocal countries in expressing its views on the situation in the Caucasus. When Russian military operations were still continuing on Georgian territory, Kaczyński traveled to the Georgian capital Tbilisi with the presidents of Lithuania, Estonia and Ukraine and the prime minister of Latvia; on Aug. 12 they took part in a huge rally of support for Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. In Tbilisi, Kaczyński strongly criticized Russia, saying "the times of Russian domination are over." Moscow reacted sharply. "Poland chooses Georgian wine and not Russian gas," wrote one government daily, suggesting that Russia's response could include suspension of deliveries of strategic raw materials on which Poland is still dependent. Nevertheless, Kaczyński continued his anti-Russian rhetoric and called on European leaders to work together against "the rebirth of Russian imperialism."

When the Russian Federation recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia's independence, the Polish foreign ministry issued a special statement Aug. 26. "Poland explicitly calls for the territorial integrity of Georgia to be respected. We are waiting for the full implementation of the Sarkozy-Medvedev six-point plan, the last point of which speaks about the necessity of an international discussion about the future status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as well as solutions that will guarantee lasting security in the region. We consider that all other steps that are being taken in the current situation are impeding the realization of the above plan and the understanding that was concluded and are met with the deep disapproval and alarm of the international community," the document reads.

Poland is also taking an active part in providing humanitarian aid to Georgia. On Aug. 26 a group of 88 Georgian children, mainly from South Ossetia, who ended up in a refugee camp in Tbilisi during the conflict, came to Goleniów near Szczecin on board President Kaczyński's plane for a vacation in Poland. Another similar group went to Rzeszów in southeastern Poland. One more group is planned.

The conflict in the Caucasus broke out Aug. 8 when Georgian villages came under fire from South Ossetian separatists and Georgia responded by launching a military attack on the autonomous province. Russia, which has long supported those who favor the region's sovereignty, sent troops into South Ossetia less than a day later. The conflict spread rapidly to Georgia proper, and to Abkhazia, another separatist province in Georgia, which has been independent of Tbilisi in practice since 1992 when local separatists assisted by the Russian army pushed Georgian troops out of the province.

Meeting with hardly any resistance, the Russian forces moved deeper into Georgia and took control of several regions, including the strategic port of Poti. They also began methodically destroying Georgian military and industrial infrastructure, especially related to the fuel sector. This caused a wave of international criticism and protest. After diplomatic efforts led by France, which currently holds the European Union presidency, Russia and Georgia signed a truce. The six-point agreement reached, however, does not specify any deadline for Russian forces withdrawing.

According to Human Rights Watch, there is increasing evidence that both the Russian and Georgian forces "illegally used force" during the conflict in South Ossetia. The organization's officials believe that an international mission should be sent to Georgia to collect evidence. Large areas of Georgia and South Ossetia have been destroyed in the conflict. There are many civilian casualties as well. The office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that more than 158,000 people were forced to leave their homes to escape the fighting.

A special European Union summit on Georgia began Sept. 1, after this issue of The Warsaw Voice went to press. We will report on the meeting in our next issue.
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