So far, the Georgian government has weathered the latest cycle of disturbances in the country’s restive regions. Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian capital, came under mortar fire on the heels of its celebration of the 15th anniversary of its declaration of secession from Georgia. The coincidence of these two events has caused political complications for Tbilisi (see EDM, September 22).
On September 22 the U.S. Department of State urged Russia to refrain from supporting the South Ossetian separatists and simultaneously demanded that Tbilisi reaffirm its adherence to finding a peaceful solution to the Ossetian problem. The OSCE also condemned the shelling. Demonstrating just how concerned the U.S. administration has become with Tbilisi’s actions, U.S. Ambassador to Georgia John Taft had a face-to-face meeting with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili on September 21. The admonishment from Washington prompted some pessimistic editorials. One of them, “Has Saakashvili’s High American Hope Failed?” in the Akhali Taoba daily argues that Washington’s rebuke of Tbilisi indicates that Tbilisi should not have any illusions about using the United States in any military solution to either the Ossetian or Abkhazian problems. Such a lecture from Washington, according to the article, only encourages the separatists.
Soon after the Taft-Saakashvili conference, the Georgian Interior Ministry dismantled most of the Georgian police checkpoints in the conflict zone and withdrew Special Forces, having accused them of abetting smugglers.
Now Tbilisi must either produce convincing evidence that the shelling was the work of Russian troops deployed in the conflict zone, as Georgian officials claim, or apologize publicly if an investigation finds that Georgian forces initiated the shelling.
Needless to say, the latter finding would harm Saakashvili’s government politically. Suspicions that the Georgian side might have been behind the shelling are high, because the attack coincided with a surprise visit by the hawkish Georgian minister of defense, Irakli Okruashvili, to the ethnic Georgian enclave in South Ossetia. Giorgi Khaindrava, Georgian state minister for conflict resolutions and the chief Georgian negotiator for the South Ossetian peace talks, has hinted at his upcoming resignation and labeled the initiators of the shelling “degenerates.”
Saakashvili reported on September 24 that “very interesting details” have emerged during the OSCE-monitored investigation of the incident. The command of the Russian peacekeepers argues that Tskhinvali has been shelled from the Georgian villages. Meanwhile, the Georgian parliament is actively debating the withdrawal of the Russian peacekeepers from the conflict zone, which inevitably would exacerbate the already volatile Georgian-Russian relations.
Shortly after the violence in South Ossetia, secessionist groups in Samtskhe-Javakheti, an ethnic-Armenian region on the Armenia-Georgia border, stepped up their activities. A council of local non-governmental organizations, meeting September 23-24, adopted a resolution calling on the Georgian government to grant autonomy to the region, including the creation of a “Samtskhe-Javakheti parliament through free and direct elections.” According to the resolution, by offering the highest degree of autonomy to South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which had violated Georgia’s territorial integrity, Tbilisi is discriminating against other ethnicities that reside in Georgia and have demonstrated their loyalty to the central government.
The relative stability in this tumultuous region, which regards any decision by Tbilisi with suspicion, is delicate. On September 19, police from the town of Akhalkalaki went on strike, protesting the recent decision by the Georgian Interior Ministry to replace the local police chief, Mkhitar Abadjian, with Aram Pogosov, an adviser to Saakashvili’s personal envoy to Samtskhe-Javakheti, without consulting the local authorities. Armenian sources say that Abadjian was fired for excessive advocacy of the interests of the local Armenians.
During the July 17 Georgian-Armenian clash in the village of Samsar (see EDM, August 3) the Abadjian-led local police sided with the local Armenians. David Rstakian, leader of the local non-registered political party Virk, complains that Tbilisi purposefully removes from key posts in Samtskhe-Javakheti any Armenians who were educated in Yerevan. Meanwhile, on September 24, Van Baiburt, a member of the Georgian parliament and deputy chair of the public movement “Union of Georgia’s Armenians,” dismissed the Samtskhe-Javakheti NGOs demand for regional autonomy. Ethnic Armenians compose 5.7% of the 4.4 million population of Georgia, according to the latest census.
Alarming trends are also emerging in Kvemo Kartli, a southeastern region predominantly populated by about 300,000 ethnic Azeris. On September 23, a Tbilisi court sentenced Telman Gasanov, the former executive of Gardabani district, to three months in jail on charges of organizing an unsanctioned rally. On September 16, Gasanov and his 40 supporters blocked the central highway demanding dual citizenship and equal rights for Azeris living in Georgia. The provocative proclamations demanding autonomy for the Azeri-populated region appeared in early September. The local radical Azeri groups, as well as some Azeri media, increasingly refer to Kvemo Kartli using the Azeri toponym, “Borchalo,” which implicitly questions the Georgian origin of this area.
Georgian analysts and politicians unanimously agree that external forces are responsible for the recent disturbances in these regions, and the assistance from the international community, which Georgia acutely needs to resolve the frozen and potential regional conflicts, appears to have differed from what Tbilisi expected. This may explain why Saakashvili’s recent public remarks contained some criticism of the West and international bodies.
(Regnum, September 23; Resonance, September 26-27; Akhali Taoba, September 24; Civil Georgia, September 25-26; PanArmenian.net, Itar-Tass, TV-Rustavi-2, September 24)