Tbilisi and the leaders of South Ossetia nearly came to blows this week, as Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili continued his campaign to rein-in separatist republics.
South Ossetian paramilitary groups had sealed off the main routes in and out of their capital, Tskhinvali, last month, but on July 7 Ossetian leaders reopened the roads, calling it a “gesture of good will,” (Rustavi-2 TV, July 7). However, the Ossetian authorities continue to block deliveries of humanitarian goods that Tbilisi wants to deliver to Ossetian villages.
The situation deteriorated again in the early hours of July 7 when Georgian peacekeepers stationed in the South Ossetian conflict zone seized nine trucks containing Russian peacekeepers, weapons, ammunition, and uniforms. According to Georgian sources, the convoy was en route from Russia to Tskhinvali. Georgian Interior Minister Irakli Okruashvili who personally led the seizure operation said, “Such a large number of arms could not be the peacekeeping purposes.”
The South Ossetians hit back on July 8 by moving 300 armed militants and armored vehicles into ethnic-Georgian villages of South Ossetia. In the village Vanati they disarmed and captured 50 Georgian servicemen, who were taken to Tskhinvali (Georgian Radio, TV Rustavi-2, July 8).
In recent weeks the South Ossetian separatist leadership has been girding for war. They continue to import weapons from the neighboring Russian regions and distribute them among the local populations, including teen-agers. They are preventing civilians from fleeing the region to escape new hostilities. On orders of the self-styled South Ossetian president, Eduard Kokoiti, South Ossetian leaders, including Kokoiti, claim that the region is ready to repel any Georgian incursion with the help of Russia and other North Caucasian regions (Prime News, Izvestia.ru, July 1-2).
Georgia’s Minister of State Security, Vano Merabishvili, recently announced a new strategy for dealing with South region. Although Merabishvili did not give details, Mikhail Kareli, the presidential envoy to Shida Kartli (the area that incorporates the breakaway region), said that the new strategy would include cultural and humanitarian components. In one widely publicized example, more than 70 Ossetian children have joined Georgian children at the Chakvi sanitarium on the Georgian coast of the Black Sea. The separatists responded to this initiative on July 3, arresting 22-year Alexander Koziev, a resident of South Ossetia, who was trying to arrange for 10 Ossetian children to travel to Chakvi. He faces trial on charges of high treason (TV-Rustavi 2, June 3; Media News, June 4).
Several recent developments may account for the new approach. First, Tbilisi has realized the futility of force as a way to bolster South Ossetia’s civilians against the separatist government. Second, Moscow has taken an unexpectedly hard line on South Ossetia’s independence claims (EDM, May 18, May 26). Third, more weapons have recently been added to the breakaway region’s arsenal. The Georgian government has likely decided to play for time and feel out Moscow’s position. South Ossetia was said to be one of the central topics when Georgian President Saakashvili met with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, in Moscow on July 3, during the informal CIS summit.
Departing for Tbilisi afterward, Saakashvili seemed optimistic. “During the visit I was convinced that the South Ossetians cannot hope for Russian help. Just as Georgia does not interfere in Russian affairs, Russia would not interfere in Georgian” domestic issues, Saakashvili told journalists. He added that a special operation is planned in one of the Georgian regions in the immediate future (TV-Imedi, TV-Rustavi-2, June 3; Inter Press, June 4; Akhali Taoba, June 5).
Saakashvili likely was responding a statement made two days earlier by Kokoiti, who claimed to have reliable information that Georgia planned to invade the breakaway region no later than July 7 or 8. Earlier Saakashvili had responded to similar statements by the South Ossetian party with a public pledge that Georgia would never use military force against South Ossetia, because “The residents of the region are our fellow citizens.” Moreover, Saakashvili offered South Ossetia greater autonomy within Georgia, in fact more leeway than North Ossetia enjoys in Russia. The South Ossetian Minister of Extraordinary Affairs, Boris Chochiev, turned down Saakashvili’s offer, saying South Ossetia still pins its hopes on Russian protection. (Izvestia.ru, July 1). Then in a July 2 interview with Imedi-TV, Saakashvili back-pedalled, saying that Georgia would use military force if confronted by a fatal threat to the country’s territorial integrity. Over the next few days Saakashvili conspicuously and continuously mentioned the increasing combat readiness of the Georgian armed forces.
Tskhinvali took note of Tbilisi’s efforts to “crack the whip.” On July 3, the South Ossetian separatists unexpectedly released three employees of the Georgian Security Ministry who had been arrested on June 28 for allegedly gathering information in South Ossetian territory. The South Ossetian rebels explained that gesture as “an expression of a good will” (Civil Georgia, June 3), although they had previously vowed to hold the officers pending a complete investigation. Georgian officials had refused to negotiate with the South Ossetians until the security officials were released and had warned that it might conduct a special operation to free them (Media News, June 4).
As a result of the standoff, Tbilisi cancelled a scheduled July meeting of the tripartite Mixed Control Commission (MCC) in Moscow. Symptomatically, the cancelled talks bothered the Russian and Ossetian parties more than the Georgian. The Georgian State Minister for Separatist Conflicts, Giorgi Khaindrava, replied, “It doesn’t make sense to make a tragedy of the fact that the planned Mixed Control Commission meeting did not take place,” (Itar-Tass, RIA, July 1). The South Ossetian party considered this statement to be oblique evidence of Georgia’s intention to retake the region by military force (Izvestia.ru, Newsru.com, July 2).
On July 5, the European Union’s Special Representative for the South Caucasus, Heikki Talvitie, met with Kokoiti in Tskhinvali. According to Talvitie, “My point was that they [authorities in South Ossetia] should respect Georgia’s territorial integrity, but still make their own way of life there. There should be a compromise between these two very valuable principles — Georgia’s territorial integrity and the self-determination of the Ossetian people” (Civil Georgia, July 6). He hailed the Georgian government’s humanitarian aid initiative. “But they [authorities in South Ossetia] are very much afraid. They do not have much trust in the Georgian aid,” Talvitie added.
It remains to be seen what promises, if any, Putin made to Saakashvili regarding South Ossetia. How the situation plays out will likely set the pattern for Russian-Georgian relations and Moscow’s policies in the South Caucasus in the visible future. So far, the Russian Foreign Ministry continues to toe the same line, calling for Georgian territorial integrity, South Ossetian self-determination, and strong warnings about the grave consequences for Georgia should military force be used (Itar-Tass, Interpress, Newsru.com, July 1-2).