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Georgian Crisis 'Decisive Moment' in Russia-West Ties

Georgia is emerging battered but defiant from its recent military confrontation with Russia. Russian troops still control significantly more Georgian territory than they did a month ago and no one can answer the key question: How can the occupiers be forced to leave? But Georgian officials are openly gleeful over Moscow's diplomatic isolation, as its friends decline to join the Kremlin in recognizing the independence of two breakaway Georgian regions. VOA correspondent Peter Heinlein in Tbilisi reports that Georgians are beginning to see a silver lining in the clouds of war that still hang over their tiny but strategically-located nation.

Georgia's fate is still a very big question mark. Russia has issued a blunt challenge to the West to stay out of its Caucasus backyard. And there are serious doubts that Europe and the United States have the political will to make the Russians go home.

The former president of Georgia's parliament, Nino Burjanadze, who now is a strong government critic, maintains it was a mistake to challenge Russia's provocative military actions in the breakaway South Ossetia region in early August. "I think we already lost the war, and I'm afraid there is no military solution of this situation," he said.

But Burjanadze says Russia has also emerged a loser. "When I said we Georgians are not winners in this conflict, it does not mean Russia has won," he said. "Russia showed once again its real face, that it preferred to be the gendarme in international relations and not to be a distinguished member of the international community that will be respected."

President Mikheil Saakashvili's political rivals say he will have a lot of explaining to do if and when the crisis subsides. In the short term, almost all agree that the Kremlin's intense dislike for Mr. Saakashvili has made his position at home more secure.

But in the longer term, political analyst Archil Gegeshidze says Russia will surely succeed in creating internal political instability in Georgia.

"In due course, I expect there will be some new waves of mass protests here in the country," he said. "To what extent this government will be able to survive those protests remains to be seen. But it is obvious there will be some internal political instability."

Nonetheless, Georgians are increasingly hopeful that the final outcome of their confrontation with Russia will be to their advantage. For one thing, Western countries that until recently had all but forgotten the Caucasus are again recognizing Georgia's critical strategic importance.

The European Union is holding a summit to discuss how to respond to Russia's intervention. The United States has poured tens of millions of dollars of humanitarian assistance and uncounted military aid into Georgia, and it has sent several senior officials to Tbilisi, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Democratic Party vice presidential candidate Joe Biden. Vice President Dick Cheney is expected to arrive next week.

Georgia's minister for European integration, David Darchiashvili, says the crisis has prompted the government to accelerate its move to embrace, and be embraced by, western institutions.

"Until recently the top priority was NATO integration," he said. The EU is not as high a priority. But now what has happened, since the EU is playing the very important role, Europe's weight will increase in Georgia, and Georgia will be heading toward European integration more seriously."

Darchiashvili says the government is becoming increasingly confident that it did the right thing in confronting Russia, and that it will be able to defend itself against domestic critics.

"I am ready to answer any questions," he said. "I do not see any major breach from our side, the principles we stayed for years. We do not want to confront Russia with it's huge resources, but it's Russia that wants to reconquer Georgia. So we should not defend ourselves?"

Officials here have hardly been able to contain their glee at the diplomatic rebuff Russia has suffered, as close friends such as Belarus, Cuba and Venezuela have shied away from endorsing Moscow's recognition of independence for the breakaway Georgian territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

National Security Director Alexander Lumaya says this kind of international response could force Moscow to think twice about its actions.

"Russia found itself close to complete international isolation," he said. "It's not something they feel comfortable with. So the path of development of this situation and whether they will apply this invasion pattern to other countries in the neighborhood would depend on how strongly the international community would pursue the line it has taken."

A big test comes on Monday when European Union leaders are scheduled to launch what is expected to be a full-scale review of relations with Russia. While news reports from Paris indicate there will be no decision on sanctions, the meeting is giving Georgians hope that the Kremlin will be made to answer for its invasion.

Analyst Archil Gegeshidze sees Russia's move in Georgia as payback to the West for the Kremlin's perceived humiliation on issues such as Western recognition of Kosovo's independence, and expanding the NATO alliance up to the Russian border.

Gegeshidze calls this a "moment of truth".

"This is a very decisive moment. Either Russia succeeds and the West fails, or West succeeds and Russia fails," he said.

Georgians say if Europe and the United States can muster the political will to stand up to Russia, and if Georgia is soon invited to begin the process of joining NATO, and if sufficient aid arrives to start the process of rebuilding, the outcome of the current crisis could be decidedly positive.

But some analysts say those are some big 'ifs.'