On November 10, Georgia’s Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania and Conflict Resolution Minister Giorgi Khaindrava reported to the cabinet of ministers’ session that demilitarization of the Georgian-South Ossetian conflict zone is progressing in a satisfactory manner. Nightly incidents, in which Ossetian armed groups fire from hilltops on Georgian villages below, are expected to end by November 20, Zhvania and Khaindrava reported. On that date, the Russian, Ossetian, and Georgian peacekeepers are scheduled to establish tripartite posts on those hills, as part of the demilitarization agreement signed on November 5 by Zhvania with South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoiti in Sochi (see EDM, November 9).
The Georgians regard Kokoiti’s signature as a relatively promising sign, because he has the necessary authority to order his forces to cease violations of the armistice, and he can be held accountable for violations of the agreement that he himself signed. Previously, South Ossetian signatories to disengagement and confidence-building documents would claim that they did not have authority to give orders to their troops.
The Sochi agreement of November 5 envisages comprehensive measures toward the “conflict zone’s” demilitarization — a concept defined as removal of all military and paramilitary forces, other than the three peacekeeping battalions (Russian, Ossetian, Georgian) and a certain number of Georgian and Ossetian police, the number and placement of which remains to be determined. All other forces are deemed “illegal” unless removed from the conflict zone (a 15-kilometer radius around Tskhinvali). Ossetian military hardware belonging to non-peacekeeper units is to be stored in inoperable condition at mutually notified locations outside the conflict zone.
Other demilitarization measures under the agreement include: de-mining of the approaches to localities, removal of roadblocks, and free movement on roads including the “bypass roads” recently built as lifelines for Georgian villages.
Following the Sochi meeting, Georgia’s Minister of Internal Affairs, Irakli Okruashvili, went on television to caution Georgian villagers in South Ossetia against being provoked by the other side into tit-for-tat hostage-taking and other incidents with a potential for escalation: “We may be dragged into acts of provocation by our ill-wishing neighbors. I will not specify which neighbors; everyone knows which country that might be. Those forces are apparently very irritated because the American government has approved a new, very important program of military assistance to Georgia; and because we have joined NATO’s Individual Partnership Action Plan; and because NATO’s Secretary-General has just visited Georgia. I will not specify which country I mean, you know it yourselves, and we must not let them drag us into provocations. If we let them, then all those programs can be thwarted. So I call on the entire population [of Georgians in South Ossetia] . . . to defuse tensions there.” (Rustavi-2 Television, November 6).
Ossetians demand the withdrawal of Georgian financial police from the vicinity of the Ergneti market, the vast smuggling hub that Georgian police closed inside the security zone in June. Ossetians, with full Russian support, rule out Tbilisi’s request that Georgian customs officials be stationed alongside Russian and Ossetian ones for joint control of the exit from Roki Tunnel, the major smuggling and arms-trafficking avenue from Russia into Georgia in the Ossetian border sector. Kokoiti termed the Roki tunnel “sacred” to Ossetians.
Held in the Joint Control Commission’s (JCC) “five-sided” format, which is weighted against Georgia three to one (Georgia, Russia, South Ossetia, North Ossetia, in the presence of the OSCE), the Sochi meeting did not discuss the issue of South Ossetia’s political status or other political issues. The South Ossetians avoid any such discussion, while Georgia is keen to initiate it, but not in the JCC. The Georgians regard the JCC’s composition as lacking balance, and its competencies as technical, not political ones, limited to monitoring the situation on the ground.
Moscow and certain OSCE diplomats suggest holding a meeting in the same JCC format, upgrading it to include the ministers of foreign affairs and the OSCE Chairmanship, in order to discuss political settlement issues, ahead of the OSCE’s year-end conference or on its sidelines. While appearing to satisfy Georgia’s goal of advancing political negotiations, the proposal would confine those crucial negotiations into the same “five-sided” format and legitimize it, potentially triggering a “process” in that format, instead of internationalizing it.
(Interfax, Kavkasia-Press, Rustavi-2, and Imedi television, November 6-10).