Asian Alliance Denies Russian Plea for Support in Georgia Conflict

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China and several Central Asian nations rebuffed Russia's hopes of international support for its actions in Georgia, issuing a statement Thursday denouncing the use of force and calling for respect for every country's territorial integrity.

A joint declaration from the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, or SCO, also offered some support for Russia's "active role in promoting peace" following a cease-fire, but overall it appeared to increase Moscow's international isolation.

The West has already criticized Russia for what it calls a disproportionate use of force in fighting this month with Georgia, its small southern neighbor that wants to join NATO.

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Russian President Dmitry Medvedev had appealed to the SCO alliance — whose members include Russia, China, and four Central Asian countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan — for unanimous support of Moscow's response to Georgia's "aggression."

But none of the other alliance members joined Russia in recognizing the independence claims of Georgia's separatist regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Medvedev's search for support in Asia had raised fears that the alliance would turn the furor over Georgia into a broader confrontation between East and West, pitting the United States and Europe against their two main Cold War foes.

But China has traditionally been wary of endorsing separatists abroad, mindful of its own problems with Tibet and Muslims in the western territory of Xinjiang. The unanimously endorsed joint statement made a point of stressing the sanctity of borders — two days after Russia sought to redraw Georgia's territory.

"The participants ... underscore the need for respect of the historical and cultural traditions of each country and each people, and for efforts aimed at preserving the unity of the state and its territorial integrity," the declaration said.

"Relying exclusively on the use of force has no prospects and hinders a comprehensive settlement of local conflicts," the declaration added, in what could also be seen as criticism of Georgia, which tried to retake South Ossetia by force.

The alliance statement also expressed "deep concern" over the conflict and urged "the appropriate sides to resolve the existing problems through peaceful dialogue and apply efforts to reconciliation and promotion of negotiations."

At the same time, the carefully crafted statement offered some praise of Moscow's actions, at least in the context of the peace deal signed five days after the war began, on the night of Aug. 7.

"The SCO member states welcome the adoption in Moscow on Aug. 12, 2008, of the six principles of resolving the conflict in South Ossetia and support the active role of Russia in promoting peace and cooperation in the given region," the statement said.

The four Central Asian members of the group — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan — all seemed reluctant to damage their relations with Europe and the United States.

Kazakhstan enjoys significant Western investment in its rich hydrocarbon sector and impoverished Kyrgyzstan earns US$150 million in aid and rent for hosting a U.S. air base that supports military operations in Afghanistan.

But overall, the summit highlighted Russia's isolation.

Despite continuing Western protests and a visit by U.S. warships to Georgia's Black Sea coast, Russian troops remain at checkpoints inside areas controlled by Georgia prior to the recent conflict.

While a cease-fire agreement calls for both sides to withdraw to their previous positions, the Kremlin says the agreement allows Russian forces to occupy "security zones" outside the rebel regions.

In a rare gesture of conciliation Thursday, Russian forces turned over 12 Georgian soldiers on the border of Abkhazia. The Georgians were seized Aug. 18 and paraded, blindfolded and hands tied behind their backs, on top of Russian armored vehicles.

The soldiers appeared unharmed Thursday, and some were smiling.

But there was also fresh conflict in the region. South Ossetia claimed to have shot down an unmanned Georgian spy plane that was scouting the skies over the republic. Georgia's Interior Ministry denied the report.

Georgia launched a military offensive on South Ossetia the night of Aug. 7. Russia in response sent hundreds of tanks rolling into the rebel region, pushing Georgian troops out of the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali before driving deep into Georgia proper.

On Tuesday, Russia recognized both South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent, a move that set off another storm of criticism from the West. The two regions make up roughly 20 percent of Georgia's territory.

The West accuses Russia of excessive force in response to the Georgian offensive, of failing to meet its troop withdrawal commitments under an EU-brokered cease-fire and of violating international law in recognizing the two separatist regions.

In Dushanbe on Thursday, Medvedev blamed Georgia for the conflict. The alliance, he said, would send a "serious signal for those are trying to justify the aggression" by endorsing Russia's actions.

But Russia has so far found little unequivocal support, even among stalwart foes of the United States.

Alexei Malashenko, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, said he was surprised that even Cuba and Venezuela had not yet followed Russia's lead in recognizing the separatist Georgian regions.

"The Soviet Union was not so alone even in 1968," he said on Ekho Moskvy radio, referring to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia that crushed a liberal reform movement in the Warsaw Pact nation.

In Vienna on Thursday, a senior Georgian official said Russian forces and their armed allies have driven all Georgians out of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and were now ethnically cleansing villages in other areas of Georgia.

"As of now, we can say with confidence that in both regions — Abkhazia and Ossetia — ethnic cleansing is fully completed," EkaTkeshelashvili told reporters at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

"They've expelled from all villages remnants of the Georgian population — they've destroyed their houses, they've looted their property, they've burned down their fields, forests," she said.

Russian OSCE Ambassador Anvar Azimov denied the charge.

The joint statement in Dushanbe offered thinly veiled criticism of the West — but some leaders at the summit went further.

Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose country has observer status with the alliance, accused "Western powers" of interfering in Central Asia and hindering its independent development.

"Their unilateral actions are continuing," Ahmadinejad said.

The Iranian leader has worked hard to gain membership for his country in the alliance, but so far those efforts have failed. Medvedev said Thursday the door was open to SCO enlargement but did not mention Iran, according to the RIA-Novosti news agency.

In addition to Iran, several other countries attended as observers. Those nations include India, Pakistan, Mongolia and Afghanistan, whose delegation was headed by President Hamid Karzai.

The SCO was created in 2001 to improve regional coordination on terrorism and border security.