Five days after Georgian troops stormed into South Ossetia to reclaim control of the tiny breakaway territory, they were in retreat on Sunday after being battered by Russian forces. But the Russians have not confined themselves to pushing Georgian forces out of South Ossetia, and ongoing Russian attacks have hit close to the Georgian capital and along its coastline. Hundreds of South Ossetians are dead and thousands have fled their homes, some sheltering in decrepit schools with no electricity or water. Georgia is a close ally of the U.S. and has a large troop contingent in Iraq. Its government is hoping that President Bush and other Western leaders will lean on Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to call off his troops. But that hope might be in vain, given the limits of Western leverage over Moscow, and the need for Russian cooperation on Iran. Georgia's Foreign Minister Eka Tkeshelashvili spoke to TIME about her country's calamitous week and what comes next:
TIME: Didn't you walk into Russia's trap? Russia provoked Georgia, and you responded, and then they launched an all-out attack. Was there no other way out here?
Tkeshelashvili: We have been forced into this situation. There was shelling of Georgian villages. We sent a special envoy. We tried to communicate that all we wanted was negotiations. Then when the Russian equipment and armed forces started moving into South Ossetia at that point we had no other choice but to respond, otherwise we would have stood by idly watching people die on the ground.
TIME: Why is South Ossetia such a key contest for Russia and Georgia?
Tkeshelashvili: We feared that Russia would do everything possible to stop any prospect for the success of Georgia joining NATO. That is the ultimate goal that Russia had, and still has. We are a former Soviet country which is becoming fully independent and oriented to Western development. That challenges every notion of the Russian Federation, that their sphere of influence over former Soviet countries should be very firm. We are getting closer to Europe, closer to NATO. If we are successful, then other former Soviet countries will follow that path. It is not only Georgia that is concerned. It is much bigger.
TIME: So what can the United States and Europe do?
Tkeshelashvili: We are hopeful. Europe and the U.S. have extremely powerful leverage in persuading Russia that it has to stop its aggression in Georgia, and it has to find what conditions there are for genuine lasting, sustaining ceasefire and then security for this part of the Georgian state. The United Nations and United States has to stop Russian aggression. If Russia is successful then we are facing the new world rules of behavior and coexistence of sovereign states.
TIME: That still leaves Georgia wanting full control over South Ossetia.
Tkeshelashvili: Territories are not the end goal. We want to consolidate George for development, democracy, and to be part of Europe and NATO. That is our goal.
TIME: What is your major objection to the South Ossetia and Abkhazia separatists?
Tkeshelashvili: We have to be clear what these movements are. In South Ossetia, most of the government officials are active members of the military and security forces of the Russian Federation. South Ossetia and Abkhazia were multiethnic communities in which Georgians might have been in the majority, but there were also large communities of Greeks, Jews, Ukrainians, and Armenians there. Now both territories have basically an apartheid regime. They are ethnically cleansed territories where some remnants of previous ethnic communities are oppressed with the help from Russia. I just was in the village of Gori. I saw with my own eyes the level of destruction, a woman dead among the destroyed buildings. It's a humanitarian disaster.
TIME: You are recalling all the Georgian soldiers from Iraq. Is this a big blow to your relationship with the US?
Tkeshelashvili: We are being bombed. Russia is a big state, we are a small state. So we have to mobilize all the forces we have.