On Tuesday, July 18, the Georgian parliament passed a resolution calling for the withdrawal of Russian peacekeepers from South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The resolution, adopted overwhelmingly amid harsh anti-Russian rhetoric, declares that Russia’s so-called peacekeeping operation itself poses a major obstacle to a political settlement of the conflict. However, the resolution, like previous ones, does not set any specific deadline for withdrawing the peacekeepers. Instead, it instructs the Georgian cabinet to denounce any agreements that legalize the presence of peacekeepers in the conflict zones (TV-Rustavi-2, Civil Georgia, July 18).
Shota Malashkia, chair of the parliamentary commission for restoration of Georgia’s territorial integrity, explained that the resolution would shift the Russian peacekeepers to a “drawdown regime” and shift the “frozen” conflicts to a “phase of settlement” (Vremya novostei, July 18).
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has clarified the cabinet’s policy regarding the peacekeepers. “We will make a final decision over this issue after I arrive in Moscow to meet with the Russian President, Vladimir Putin. The final decision by the Georgian government will depend on relations with our Russian partners, he added (TV-Rustavi-2, Civil Georgia, July 18). Meanwhile, the parliamentary resolution does not create a favorable climate for the forthcoming Putin-Saakashvili meeting, given that the Russian leadership, including Putin, vehemently opposes the pullout of Russian peacekeepers from Georgia’s conflict zones.
Saakashvili apparently plans to negotiate with Putin, pinning hopes on support from the West and particularly from Washington, which he reportedly obtained during his July 3-6 visit to the United States and the recent G-8 summit. Otherwise Tbilisi’s diplomatic sparring with Moscow looks counterproductive. But it is still unclear exactly how the Western community would assist Georgia in settling the conflict in South Ossetia, which for Tbilisi naturally means the full and unambiguous restoration of Georgia’s jurisdiction over this region.
Most Georgian analysts are unanimous in the belief that by adopting this resolution the Georgian leadership has taken an extremely risky step likely fraught with punitive counteractions and provocations by Moscow (TV-Rustavi-2, July 18). Russian officials and pundits have already warned Tbilisi about the “lamentable consequences” of the peacekeepers’ pullout (vesti. ru, July 18). Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov has warned that if the Georgian parliament decides the peacekeeping forces should withdraw from the conflict zone, Russia would consult the Abkhaz and Ossetian leadership (RIA-Novosti, July 15). Eduard Kokoiti, the self-styled “president” of South Ossetia, pledged that Russian peacekeepers will stay in the conflict zone (vesti.ru, July 18).
In a live televised address on July 16 Saakashvili dismissed Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s remarks about a Georgian “party of war” staging provocations in South Ossetia (Itar-Tass, July 16). He reiterated Tbilisi’s peaceful approach to secessionist conflicts, but emphasized that Georgia will not tolerate the status quo, and he called on citizens to show patience while Tbilisi works to solve persisting problems (TV-Imedi, July 16). However, addressing the troops participating in maneuvers at the Orpolo firing range on July 15, Saakashvili said, “Major challenges are ahead, major threats still persist, and the use of your strength might be needed in the future” (Civil Georgia, TV-Rustavi-2, July 15). Military analyst Giorgi Tavdigiridze argued that Georgia’s “party of war” is a group maneuvering to outflank the cabinet by spreading war-like scenarios in order to expand its financial and political influence in the country (Kavkaz Press, July 17; Alia, July 18).
On July 17, Georgian and South Ossetian officials clashed over charges of military preparations. Mikhail Mindzayev, South Ossetian interior minister, alleged that Tbilisi was evacuating women and children from Georgian-populated villages in the conflict zone (Regnum, July 17). Meanwhile, residents of the predominantly Georgian enclave in the conflict zone reported the deployment of an additional 70 armored vehicles near the conflict zone, noted apparent strongholds under construction, and reported that several trucks loaded with arms reportedly destined for the Moscow-backed Ossetian separatists had been observed (TV-Rustavi-2, Kviris Palitra, July 17).
Analyst Khatuna Lagazidze, formerly with the Georgian National Security Council, told Jamestown that after the withdrawal of the Russian peacekeepers, probably this fall, Georgian authorities may have to consider using force to restore control over South Ossetia and the West might ignore such a move, but only if the peacekeepers’ removal does not develop into a lingering conflict in South Ossetia. However, if Russia agrees to withdraw its peacekeepers from South Ossetia, Lagazidze argues, it will instigate a protracted armed conflict between Georgian troops and South Ossetian militants reinforced by mercenaries from the North Caucasus. By planting the seeds of long-term instability in Georgia, Russia would be able to implement its cherished dream — hindering the implementation of international energy projects in Georgia, Lagazidze said.