Pressing Issues Remain as the Zone of Russian Occupation Slightly Shrinks

By David Iberi

On October 19, 2010, Tbilisi regained control over the village of Perevi after a regiment of the Russian occupation forces left the area the previous day. Located in western Georgia close to what is called the Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia, Perevi was first vacated by the Russians in 2008, but their military units soon reentered the village and reoccupied it for nearly two years. As Perevi is now free and fully accessible for Georgian police and ordinary citizens, the more important questions of Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity remain unsolved. The Russians have just shifted the occupation line slightly inward, but will apparently not budge any further unless international pressure intensifies.

The Georgian Foreign Ministry immediately called the Russian withdrawal from Perevi “a step taken in the right direction,” but cautiously added that this was only a “miniscule step.” First Deputy Foreign Minister Giorgi Bokeria told Georgian and foreign media that Moscow de-occupied the Georgian village as a result of “the pressure from the international community.”

That Perevi was never a part of the Bolshevik-designed South Ossetia autonomous district – a territorial entity created within the Georgian Soviet Republic shortly after the Russian invasion and occupation in 1921 – has not been disputed by Russia’s current leadership. Instead, Georgian analysts argue that Perevi was kept under occupation for strategic reasons and possibly as a bargaining chip in future negotiations. The Russians apparently exhausted the village’s strategic significance after they completed the construction of roads northwest of Perevi that would allow them to move their troops easier than before in the western flank of occupation. As far as the bargaining value of Perevi is concerned, the Russians probably later realized that it was not big enough to entice the Georgians into some new scheme. Tbilisi’s muted response to Moscow’s highly publicized step was clear evidence of that.

The Russian foreign ministry issued a contradictory statement on October 19, the opening part of which claimed that Moscow acted “in a spirit of goodwill” when solving this “technical, in fact, problem.” “This was preceded by serious preparation,” the document read, such as the completion of “a 10-plus km bypass road.” The statement became more revealing at the end, reading, “With the withdrawal of the Russian border post from Perevi the issue of alleged non-compliance by us with the [2008 Russo-Georgian ceasefire] agreement has been definitively closed.”

In its own statement, the Georgian Foreign Ministry called the Russian claim on the “closure” of the issue “a cynical attempt to evade the full compliance with the international legal commitments” stipulated in the ceasefire agreement and reminded Moscow and the international community that Russia continues to occupy 20 percent of Georgia’s sovereign territory where “several military bases and up to 10,000 troops are illegally deployed.” Catherine Ashton, the high representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, for her part welcomed “the removal of the Russian checkpoint in Perevi, Georgia” as a “positive development on the ground” and expressed a hope for “further progress toward the full implementation of the European Union-brokered Six Point Agreement.” Ashton’s statement complemented Georgia’s argument that by quitting in Perevi, Moscow made just one step in the right direction.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and members of his cabinet have said on many occasions that Tbilisi is ready to engage in dialogue and negotiations with Moscow “without any preconditions,” to which Moscow has not yet responded. In a larger perspective, what Tbilisi is apparently trying to do is to include the solving of its sovereignty and territorial integrity issue as a composite part of the United States and the West’s reset policy with Russia. The dynamics of Moscow’s bid to accede the World Trade Organization as well the NATO and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) summits in November and December will be indicative of how much Georgia’s pro-Western government’s “inclusion” agenda is shared by Washington and Brussels.