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Russia reaches out to China as West fumes over Georgia

by Conor Humphries*

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev was to meet his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao yesterday, as Moscow looked to bolster support in a diplomatic stand-off with the West over its conflict with Georgia.
Western governments roundly condemned Russia's decision to formally recognise the independence of the Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Medvedev was to fly to the Central Asian republic of Tajikistan for talks with Hu on the eve of a regional summit on Thursday that officials have said could address the Georgia crisis.
Stepping up its criticism of Moscow, France said Russia was "outside international law", with Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner asserting the European Union "cannot accept these violations."
In a sombre television address on Tuesday, Medvedev announced he had signed decrees recognising the independence of the two regions at the heart of the conflict that erupted this month in Georgia.
The move was seen as cementing Russia's military gains in the Caucasus following the five-day conflict with Georgian forces.
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili assailed the Russian move as an "attempt to wipe Georgia from the map" and promised to wage a "peaceful struggle" to win back the territories.
US President George W. Bush called on Russia to reconsider the "irresponsible decision."
But amid a hail of international criticism, Medvedev was unapologetic, saying: "We're not afraid of anything."
"We will do everything we can to avoid" a new Cold War, he said in an interview to French LCI television.
But he added: "If they want relations to worsen, they will get it."
In an unprecedented move for the Kremlin, Medvedev gave a string of interviews to Western media outlets to explain Russia's actions, speaking to CNN, Al Jazeera and the Financial Times among others.
"The most important thing is to defend the rights of the people who live in South Ossetia and Abkhazia," he told BBC, hours after announcing recognition of the two regions' independence.
Medvedev is to join leaders today for the summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Agreement, a regional security group dominated by Russia and China that includes four former Soviet Central Asian countries.
The group was set in 2001 as a counterweight to NATO's influence in the strategic Central Asian region.
The Kremlin decision was greeted with bursts of gunfire on the streets of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as locals danced and embraced to celebrate a move many saw as a historic liberation from Georgian influence.
But the response from the West was decidedly icy.
The European Union said it "strongly condemned" the move and a statement from the French EU presidency said the 27-nation bloc would now "examine from this point of view the consequences of Russia's decision."
Bush called on "Russia to live up to its international commitments, reconsider this irresponsible decision, and follow the approach set out in the six-point agreement" that ended the fighting earlier in the month.
Britain's Foreign Minister David Miliband yesterday was due to travel to Ukraine, which critics of Moscow fear is among the most exposed to an increasingly assertive Russian foreign policy.
In his televised address, Saakashvili shot back at Moscow and said his country would step up its campaign to join NATO.
Russia seeks to "break the Georgian state, undermine the fundamental values of Georgia and to wipe Georgia fron the map," he said.
"This is the first attempt in Europe after Nazi Germany and the Stalinist Soviet Union to put a neighbouring state on its knees and to change the borders of Europe by force," he said.
In a sign of a growing chill with the West, Russia's ambassador to NATO announced Moscow was suspending cooperation with the Western alliance but that it would not pull out of an agreement to help stabilise Afghanistan.
At the heart of the stand-off is Kosovo, whose aspirations for independence from Serbia were supported militarily and diplomatically by the West, but rejected angrily by Moscow.
In "international relations, you cannot have one rule for some, and another rule for others," Medvedev wrote in a commentary in yesterday's issue of the Financial Times.
The international community had warned Russia against recognising South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which broke from Georgia in the early 1990s with Moscow's backing after brief but bloody wars.
Tensions have mounted since Russian forces entered Georgia on August 8 to thwart a Georgian attempt to retake South Ossetia.
France brokered a ceasefire but the US and other Western nations accused Russia of breaching the accord by keeping tanks and troops in Georgia.
The world's second-largest oil producer, Russia is also a veto-wielding member of the UN Security Council and plays a central role in efforts to solve global problems such as the controversy over Iran's nuclear programme.