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Q&A | Conflict in Georgia

Russian onslaught in Georgia may redefine borders, test alliances

Bodyguards escort Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili to shelter Monday under a threat of Russian air attack in Gori.

Associated Press

Bodyguards escort Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili to shelter Monday under a threat of Russian air attack in Gori.

What does the fighting mean? How serious is it?

Russia's military campaign in Georgia has raised tensions between Russia and its former Cold War foes to their highest level in decades. It is the largest engagement by Russian forces outside its borders since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Georgian officials say that if the West fails to stop the onslaught, Russia will be emboldened to reassert its influence over other countries in the region that have turned toward democracy. They say the West's credibility is on the line.

What do the regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia want?

Immediately, independence. Both regions have run their own affairs since ousting Georgian forces in the early 1990s. In the longer term, possible annexation to Russia. Ethnic, economic and political ties between the regions and Russia are strong. Russian troops are deployed in the Abkhazia (pronounced ahb-KAH-zee-uh) together with a U.N. military observer group; a Russian peacekeeping battalion is deployed in South Ossetia (oh-SEE-shuh). Russia has granted passports to most of South Ossetia's 70,000 residents, making them quasi-citizens, and many want to join with ethnic brethren in the North Ossetia region of Russia. Like South Ossetia, most of Abkhazia's 180,000 residents have rejected offers of autonomy within Georgia.

What does Russia want?

Russian officials say Georgia provoked the assault by attacking South Ossetia, killing civilians and Russian peacekeepers. Russia says it is acting to protect its citizens there and punish Georgia. According to a Russian Defense Ministry spokesman, it opened a second front through Abkhazia, bombing a Georgian military facility, to avert another attack on South Ossetia.

What other motives might Russia have?

Some analysts believe Moscow's aims are to weaken the armed forces of Georgia and its pro-Western president, Mikhail Saakashvili. The former Soviet republic's pro-West leanings and its alliance with the United States have long irritated Moscow, which has been very critical of popular "revolutions" like Georgia's, supported by the West. Russia is also angry at the prospect of the eastward expansion of NATO, its old Cold War foe. Russia stepped up ties with separatists in Abkhazia and South Ossetia after NATO said that Georgia would eventually be allowed to join. Russia also may be reasserting its dominance in regions it considers its back yard. And it now has the strength to do that, boosted by recent oil profits and successes against its own rebel region of Chechnya.

How has the U.S. responded?

President Bush pressed Moscow on Monday to accept an immediate cease-fire and pull its troops out to avert a "dramatic and brutal escalation" of violence in the former Soviet republic. Bush has called Russia's response disproportionate and accused it of trying to unseat Saakashvili. But Moscow's cooperation is vital to U.S. aims in Iran, North Korea and elsewhere so its response will be measured.

Why do so many countries care?

Nestled between Turkey and Russia, Georgia serves as a major conduit for trade and oil flowing from Russia and Central Asia to the West.

What triggered the Russian attacks?

President Saakashvili (pronounced sah-kahsh-VIH-leh) vowed to bring South Ossetia and Abkhazia back under full Georgian control. Following intermittent clashes with separatists, Georgia launched an attack late Thursday. Russia responded with missile, artillery and air attacks and poured tanks, armored vehicles and thousands of troops across the border, pushing Georgian forces out of the provincial capital Sunday. To the west, Russian-supported separatists in Abkhazia launched air and artillery strikes on Georgian troops there. More Russian troops were sent there over the weekend.

How about civilians?

Russian authorities estimate that 37,000 refugees have crossed into Russia. Reports of deaths vary widely, from the low hundreds to more than 2,000.

What is Georgia's relationship with the United States?

President Bush has promoted Georgia as a bastion of democracy, helped strengthen and train its military and urged that NATO admit the country. Georgia's contribution of 2,000 troops to the allied mission in Iraq is the third-largest. The feeling has been mutual: When Bush visited Tbilisi in 2005, the authorities estimated that 150,000 people showed up to see him.

Sources: Times wires and files, BBC News, the (London) Times.

History, leaders

Georgia is on the Black Sea between Turkey and Russia and was ruled by Moscow for most of the two centuries preceding the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union. An attempt by Georgia's government in 2003 to manipulate elections sparked protests leading to the resignation of Eduard Shevardnadze, president since 1995. Elections in 2004 swept Mikhail Saakashvili into power. Market reform and democratization have been accompanied by growing trade deficits and inflation and are complicated by independence movements in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Georgia's makeup

Area: 27,880 square miles, slightly smaller than South Carolina

Population: 4.6-million

Life expectancy: 76.51

Ethnic groups: Georgian, 83.8 percent; Azeri, 6.5 percent; Armenian, 5.7 percent; Russian, 1.5 percent; other, 2.5 percent (2002 census)

Religions: Orthodox Christian, 83.9 percent; Muslim, 9.9 percent; Armenian-Gregorian, 3.9 percent; Catholic, 0.8 percent; other, 0.8; none 0.7 percent (2002 census)

Languages: Georgian, 71 percent (official); Russian, 9 percent; Armenian, 7 percent; Azeri, 6 percent; other, 7 percent

Capital: Tbilisi

GDP per capita: $4,700 (2007 est.)

Natural resources: forests, hydropower, manganese, iron ore, copper

Industries: steel, aircraft, machine tools, electrical appliances, mining, chemicals, wood products, wine

Source: CIA World Factbook, Los Angeles Times

Russian onslaught in Georgia may redefine borders, test alliances 08/11/08 [Last modified: Friday, August 15, 2008 2:00pm]
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