On July 9 Oleg Alborov, secretary of South Ossetia’s security council, was killed by a remote-controlled bomb as he opened his garage door. Officials in the breakaway Georgian republic immediately accused the Georgian special services of carrying out this assassination.
As the simmering conflict between Tbilisi and South Ossetia appears ready to reignite, attention has turned to Russia’s role in the conflict. Moscow has apparently resorted to its favorite methods — leaking sensitive information through government-controlled media and blocking communications inside the conflict zone.
On July 8 Russia closed the Georgian-Russian border checkpoint at Lars, the only recognized road link between Georgia and Russia. Citing the need for repairs, Moscow gave Georgia only two hours’ notice. This move caused a huge traffic jam on the Georgian side of the border and upset thousands of travelers. Some analysts argue that Russia is trying to reroute cargo shipments through the Roki Tunnel, which connects South Ossetia with the Russian republic of North Ossetia and which Tbilisi does not control (Kviris palitra, July 10).
In order to keep traffic moving, the Georgian government has allowed people to enter the country through an unrecognized border crossing point through today, July 14, hoping that negotiations would resolve the border problem by then.
On July 12 the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) media center announced that it had received a tip from an unidentified caller from Georgia that Tbilisi is planning to stage a provocation against Russian peacekeepers in the Ossetian-Georgian conflict zone timed to coincide with this weekend’s G-8 summit in St. Petersburg. According to the FSB, the caller had information from sources inside the Georgian government that Tbilisi has drawn up a plan to kill 15-20 ethnic Georgians in South Ossetia. The scheme called for leaving two dead Russian soldiers at the scene in order to frame them for murder. Tbilisi would then cite the deaths of the Georgians as a pretext for using military force in South Ossetia. The informer claimed that Tbilisi believed that Russian President Vladimir Putin would not dare to retaliate during the G-8 summit. FSB officials said the tip had been relayed to the command of the joint peacekeeping force in the conflict zone. Nikolai Dolgopolov, the Russian chief of South Ossetia’s Committee for State Security, also claimed to have information about Georgian plans to stage “a series of provocations and acts of sabotage” in the conflict zone during the summit (Interfax AVN, RIA-Novosti, July 12; Itar-Tass, July 13).
Kote Kemularia, secretary of Georgia’s National Security Council, promptly dismissed the FSB allegations as “groundless.” Georgy Volsky, deputy state minister for conflict settlement, stated that the recent activities of the Russian and South Ossetian authorities “indicate that a provocation in the conflict zone is indeed being prepared, but not on the Georgian side” (TV-Rustavi-2, Itar-Tass, July 13).
Russian officials had harsh words for Georgia. Andrei Kokoshin, chair of the Russian Duma’s Committee on the Commonwealth of Independent States, warned that Russia has “all grounds” to take measures to ensure South Ossetia’ security in case of military actions by Georgia (Rian.ru July 5). Sergei Ivanov, Russia’s deputy prime minister and defense minister, bluntly stated on July 13: Russia “will stand up for our peacekeepers and it should not be forgotten that 90% of South Ossetian residents are Russian citizens” (Interfax AVN, July 13). Taymuraz Mamsurov, president of North Ossetia, stated on July 12 that North Ossetia will provide every support to the fraternal people of South Ossetia if Georgia unleashes aggression (Regnum, July 13).
This latest incident follows Russia’s previous attempts to lure Georgia into a large-scale military conflict in South Ossetia. In summer 2004, Tbilisi was on the verge of a large war in region but backed away at the last minute, reportedly after demands from the Western community.
However, Georgia’s increasing military preparations, including construction of new military facilities and large-scale military maneuvers, suggest that Tbilisi is taking defensive precautions against the breakaway region. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov cited the ongoing construction of a new military base near the conflict zone, as well as the frequent rotations in Georgia’s peacekeeping battalion in South Ossetia as indications of Tbilisi’s willingness to use force (RIA-Novosti, Interfax July 13). On July 5 Georgia began construction of a modern army infantry base 26 kilometers from the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali. The base, with capacity of 3,000 troops, will be fully ready by May 26, 2007 (TV-Imedi, July 5)
Kremlin-backed rumors about the exact date on which Georgia will launch its alleged military incursion into South Ossetia have circulated all year. In March the Russian media, citing “reliable sources in the Georgian Defense Ministry,” revealed the existence of “Tiger’s Leap,” reportedly a plan to invade South Ossetia on May 6. The date of the attack was postponed until June, and now the South Ossetian side claims that the Georgian army will attack tomorrow — July 15 (see EDM, June 21).
Meeting with journalists on July 11, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili dismissed Putin’s suggestion that Georgia should follow Russia’s example in Chechnya and hold independence referendums in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, another breakaway region. He rejected the allegation that Washington unofficially gave him a green light to retake South Ossetia by military force. “We no longer have in this world masters issuing instructions to us,” he said. Saakashvili pledged that the troops currently involved in maneuvers at the Orpholo range would not attack Tskhinvali. “I know full well what any kind of military confrontation means. It means going back to the starting point,” he said. However, not intimidated by Kremlin saber rattling, Saakashvili reacted to Russian intimidation by asserting that Georgia “will respond in a stronger manner than it ever could in the past” to any attempts to stage provocations and destabilize the region (TV-Imedi, July 11).