Saakashvili Rules Out Seizing Regions

TBILISI, Georgia — President Mikheil Saakashvili said Georgia knows that it cannot take back its Russian-backed rebel regions militarily but fears Moscow has designs on Tbilisi.

In an interview almost a year after the country’s war with Russia, Saakashvili said the world had failed to hold Moscow accountable for “mass ethnic cleansing” of Georgians in the South Ossetia conflict for fear of jeopardizing energy and trade interests.

That he is still in office is “almost a miraculous story of survival,” Saakashvili said, adding that though a new war is not imminent, Russia has not given up hope of ousting him with forces 50 kilometers from Tbilisi.

“I am still sitting in this office despite solemn pledges by [Prime Minister Vladimir] Putin to hang me by different parts of my body, to crush Georgia’s statehood,” Saakashvili said. “In many ways, it’s mission unaccomplished. That’s certainly very worrisome.”

The Russian military crushed a Georgian assault on South Ossetia in August 2008, sending tanks into Georgia proper and shaking Western confidence in oil and gas routes running through the South Caucasus.

A spike in tensions ahead of the anniversary is fueling fears of new hostilities.

The Russian Defense Ministry warned on Saturday that it would use “all available force” to defend against Georgian “provocation” after South Ossetia accused Georgia of firing mortars. Georgia denied the charge.

Saakashvili said Georgia had no pretensions to take back South Ossetia and Abkhazia by force, responding to a comment by visiting U.S. Vice President Joe Biden last month in which he said there was “no military option to reintegration.”

“The issue is whether anybody in the world wants a new war in Europe with the participation of Russia, and the obvious answer is ‘no.’ And that’s exactly what Vice President Biden was implying, and which we share,” Saakashvili said.

The West condemned Russia’s response last year as “disproportionate,” but it also faulted Saakashvili’s assault on South Ossetia, which, like Abkhazia, threw off Georgian rule in wars in the early 1990s.

Russia says it was compelled to act to save civilians and its peacekeepers. It says Saakashvili is dangerous, but analysts doubt that Moscow has any intention of going to war to oust him.

Tens of thousands of people were displaced on both sides. Rights groups said Georgian shelling of Tskhinvali during the war was indiscriminate, and Russian forces had failed to stop militias from looting and razing Georgian villages.

“In many ways … the world has neglected the mass-scale ethnic cleansing that has been done here,” Saakashvili said.

Saakashvili has survived months of protests by opponents, who accuse him of monopolizing power since becoming president after the 2003 Rose Revolution. He defended his record but conceded that “sometimes we could have done it better.”