On September 19-20 in Tskhinvali, South Ossetian authorities led celebrations of the 15th anniversary of the declaration of secession from Georgia. Although the September 20, 1990, declaration and some subsequent documents speak of “independence” and a “sovereign state,” the authorities in practice seek outright annexation to Russia via North Ossetia. A giant billboard just outside Tskhinvali, showing Russian President Vladimir Putin with the caption, “Our President,” in effect advertised that program during the festivities.
Yevgeny Trofimov (chairman of the Russian Duma’s Nationalities Committee), Konstantin Zatulin (who is also director of the government’s Institute on CIS Affairs), and other Duma deputies attended the celebration, along with the Abkhaz de facto leader Sergei Bagapsh (arriving directly from Moscow) and delegations from Transnistria and Karabakh. These delegations, as well as guests from North Ossetia, crossed the Russia-Georgia border unlawfully through the Roki tunnel, which is controlled by Russian troops.
Ossetian troops with some 20 tanks and other armored vehicles, anti-aircraft installations, and 10 infantry battalions took part in a military parade in Tskhinvali’s central Stalin Street and Stalin Square. The “defense ministers” of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Maj.-Generals Anatoly Barankevich and Sultan Sosnaliev — both seconded by the Russian military to these posts — attended the parade.
The Russian “peacekeeping” commander, Maj.-General Marat Kulakhmetov, pre-notified Tbilisi of some of the movements of those troops and hardware toward Tskhinvali and conceded that those movements were unlawful. However, his troops did nothing to stop this massive breach of multiple agreements among Russia, Georgia, South Ossetia, and the OSCE on force-reduction and demilitarization measures in the “security zone.”
South Ossetia’s de facto leader Eduard Kokoiti signed with Bagapsh a “treaty” on friendship and cooperation between Abkhazia and South Ossetia — the type of move intended to suggest that the two territories’ secession from Georgia is irreversible: “Our celebration will demonstrate to the world that we are full-fledged democratic states.” However, they made no secret of the shared goal for their territories to become eventually parts of Russia.
Kokoiti signed an agreement with Russia’s North Ossetian republic leader, Teimuraz Mansurov, to create a commission on “special relations” and draft a comprehensive agreement to that effect. The document proclaims the goal of “striving to preserve the unity of Ossetia.” “There can be no other option than unification,” Mansurov declared. In a similar vein, Kokoiti told the press conference, “We see our future only in a single political, economic, and cultural space with Ossetia and Russia.” Kokoiti also made a speech on “Ossetian self-determination” in Russian. He and others at the celebration summarily dismissed Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s offer of autonomy and devolution of powers to South Ossetia as a “publicity exercise for international consumption,” thus avoiding discussion of the offer on its merits.
Georgia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs lodged a protest with Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs over Mamsurov’s actions in Tskhinvali. “Inasmuch as the Russian side is fully responsible for actions of the executive branch, Georgia regards the step taken by the head of North Ossetia as an unfriendly move by Russia that encourages separatism.” Parliament chairwoman Nino Burjanadze in turn “ask[ed] the international community: Do we really need a peacekeeping force under whose nose the separatist authorities are staging military parades? A peacekeeping force that sits idly by while two separatist presidents are proffering threats?” The parliament’s international affairs committee chairman, Kote Gabashvili, noted that Russia is now engaged in an ongoing annexation of South Ossetia after having supported their secession. The Georgian parliament is now drafting a resolution calling for basic changes to the “peacekeeping” operations in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
On September 21 in the evening, three projectiles were fired from grenade-launchers into Tskhinvali, injuring seven persons, most of whom were released from ambulatory care that same evening, Kulakhmetov announced. Both he and Russia’s MFA statement did not blame any side for the incident. The festivities were not affected. Georgia’s Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili and parliamentary defense committee chairman Givi Targamadze — who were visiting nearby Georgian villages that day — rejected any suggestions that Georgians were responsible. They, as well as State Minister for Conflict Resolution Giorgi Khaindrava, noted that only Georgia’s adversaries were interested in provoking such incidents. Saakashvili promised an investigation and declared that Tskhinvali residents’ safety was “a matter of honor” to him.
In his speeches on September 14 at the summit of world leaders in New York and on September 18 in Tbilisi, Saakashvili decried the “intensive annexation” of Abkhazia and South Ossetia “with direct support from outside,” and vowed that Georgia would never accept such “despicable annexations” of parts of its territory.
The Tskhinvali events demonstrated also the OSCE’s irrelevance regarding South Ossetia. The organization has only five or six military observers, dual-based in Tbilisi and Tskhinvali, who are pathetically under equipped with transport and communications, and thus unable to detect most breaches of the agreements on force-reduction and demilitarization in the “security zone.” The OSCE interprets its mandate as being confined to the “security zone” around Tskhinvali, which forms only a small part of South Ossetia’s territory. The Mission declines to monitor Java, where Ossetian troops and their heavy weaponry are stationed for quick deployment in Tskhinvali.
Politically, the Mission failed to react to the September 19 demonstration of military force, just as it had failed in June 2004 to react to the expedition of armed “volunteers” from Kuban, Abkhazia, and Transnistria to South Ossetia and their exercises with Ossetian troops. As custodian of the Helsinki Final Act and the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe, the OSCE would be obligated to respond at least declaratively to the ongoing annexation of Georgia’s territories and the parades of CFE-banned combat hardware (“unaccounted-for treaty-limited equipment”). However, the OSCE Mission — like the organization itself — is hostage to Moscow’s veto in Vienna and thus unable to act unable to act in Tskhinvali.
(Rustavi-2 TV, Interfax, Russian TV Channel One, September 18-21)