At a June 2 meeting of the mixed monitoring commission in Tskhinvali, the Georgian delegation demonstrated its lack of confidence in Major-General Svyatoslav Nabzdorov, demanding that he be recalled by Russia. Nabzdorov is the Russian commander of peacekeeping forces in South Ossetia. He is being replaced, effective June 15, by Marat Kulakhmetov, previously commander of a Russian army division stationed near Rostov. Nabzdorov’s threat on May 31 to close Georgian police posts in the conflict zone within hours, by force if necessary, had precipitated Georgia’s decision that same day to deploy special forces to protect those police posts.
On June 4, Georgian police began moving out of the so-called “Georgian-South Ossetian conflict zone,” replaced by Georgian army troops. The redeployment, to be completed within several days, follows Tbilisi’s decision to make full use of its quota of 500 troops and an undisclosed number of armored vehicles in the zone. Slightly more than 100 Georgian soldiers had been stationed in the zone in recent years, until the May 31 events. The Joint Control Commission — a Russian-Georgian-South Ossetian body, supervising ceasefire and peacekeeping troops — authorized the continued presence of Georgian police at one major smuggling-interdiction checkpoint, but added an equivalent number of Russian and South Ossetian troops at that site. Meanwhile, 13 Georgian police posts have been engaged in anti-smuggling operations around South Ossetia’s perimeter.
On June 2, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili announced a set of social programs for the population of South Ossetia. Planned measures include: disbursement of Georgian pensions to retirees in South Ossetia, including those who are already entitled to pensions from Russia (which many of them are); distribution of free mineral fertilizer; reopening the railway link to Tskhinvali, which had been dismantled during the 1992 fighting; and, deployment of medical personnel to provide free ambulatory treatment to local residents. However, thus far South Ossetian authorities are thwarting these measures.
On June 4, a Georgian convoy, headed by Agriculture Minister Davit Shervashidze, began the distribution of nitrate fertilizer, a measure welcomed by Ossetian residents. But, after the first stop, the convoy was forced by the secessionist militia to leave South Ossetia. South Ossetian authorities evidently recalled that fertilizer distribution in Ajaria in April — also with Shervashidze leading the first convoy — helped set in motion events that led to the toppling of Aslan Abashidze.
Work to reopen the railway to Tskhinvali began on June 3 with Georgia’s Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania and Railways Director Davit Onoprivishvili in attendance. The 6-kilometer stretch to be restored was scheduled for recommissioning within three days. However, on June 5 South Ossetian OMON troops took over the stretch and halted restoration work.
These setbacks notwithstanding, Tbilisi retained the political initiative. On June 4, the Georgian Parliament launched an appeal to the population of South Ossetia calling for political dialogue and personal contact after 12 years of separation. In a televised interview the same day, Saakashvili addressed South Ossetia’s secessionist leader Eduard Kokoiti, offering him a choice between accepting Georgian sovereignty — in which case he could “play an important role in Georgia” and “give his people a chance to improve their lot.” Alternately, Saakashvili said that Kokoiti could remain in his current “situation as a besieged chieftain in a small enclave.” Saakashvili also offered to go to Tskhinvali for negotiations.
As if to counter that conciliatory message, Russian state television networks aired several inflammatory commentaries alleging that massive Georgian forces, complete with spetsnaz and combat hardware, were headed for South Ossetia. Russia charged that Tbilisi’s call for dialogue was designed to set up a “fifth column” in Tskhinvali. Russian Television’s Channel One also aired an interview with Trans-Dniester leader Igor Smirnov who offered unspecified military assistance to South Ossetia and Abkhazia, in the event of “aggression by Georgia’s leadership.”
In the midst of the events, Kokoiti who is a Russian citizen and a long-time St. Petersburg resident, replaced the head of South Ossetia’s KGB, an agency which is still so named, and undoubtedly the most efficient institution in South Ossetia. The new head, Colonel Mairbeg Bichegkaev, previously served as deputy head of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) branch in North Ossetia. (Rustavi-2 TV, Imedi TV, Prime-News, Interfax, Russian Television Channel One, NTV Mir, June 3-6).