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Russia-Georgia conflict: Why both sides have valid points

As Russian troops prepare to withdraw from Georgian bases and cities they invaded last week, a look at the two contradictory stories of what happened and why.

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Many Russian officials here argue that it's not so strange that, as the successor state to the Russian Empire and the USSR, post-Soviet Russia should have ongoing obligations to former subjects such as the Ossetians and the Abkhazians. Russia was a key party to the accords that ended the cycle of conflicts in the early '90s, which left Russian peacekeeping troops holding the tripwire position in both South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Under a 1992 law that entitled any former Soviet citizen to apply for a Russian passport, most inhabitants of the two breakaway republics have since acquired Russian citizenship.

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Alexei Mukhin, director of the independent Center for Political Information in Moscow, says that Americans ought to be more understanding, since the US has guaranteed the security of at least one breakaway statelet, Taiwan, with its own military force for over half a century.

More recently, Russian officials point out, NATO fought a 1999 war that was labeled a humanitarian intervention, which wrested the Albanian-populated province of Kosovo away from Serbia. Despite the fact that Serbia, a member of the UN, includes Kosovo within its sovereign territory, most Western powers recognized Kosovo's self-declared independence earlier this year.

Russia opposed the Kosovo war and later argued that the West should preserve Serbia's territorial integrity by convincing the Kosovars to accept Serbian offers of sweeping autonomy instead of independence. Now that Kosovo's independence has been effectively granted – though it has not been admitted to the UN – the Kremlin warns the West has upset the rules that formerly covered separatist movements around the world.

Some extreme nationalist politicians in Moscow, jubilant about this Kosovo precedent, say it's only a matter of time before Russia follows suit, and unilaterally recognizes Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and perhaps other breakaway statelets in the post-Soviet region as well.

Are President Saakashvili's democratic credentials solid?

The West has rallied around Georgia and its embattled president, Saakashvili, who was overwhelmingly elected by Georgians after leading the "Rose Revolution," which culminated in Saakashvili and his supporters storming the parliament building mid-session. But no Georgian transition of power has ever occurred in a constitutional way: Saakashvili's predecessors, Zviad Gamsakhurdia and Eduard Shevardnadze, were removed by revolutions, not democratic elections.

Saakashvili's own record in power has been mixed. He's made great strides in fighting Georgia's endemic corruption and, in 2004, he peacefully persuaded another breakaway region, Adjaria, to return to central government control.

But last November, he shocked many by ordering riot troops to violently disperse peaceful protesters in Tbilisi, and declaring a draconian state of emergency – though he quickly rescinded it. His decision to invade South Ossetia has Georgia's opposition muttering that it may be time for him to go.

[Editor's Note: The original version misidentified NATO.]