On February 15 Georgia’s parliament unanimously called for Russian peacekeepers to be withdrawn from the breakaway region of South Ossetia and be replaced by international forces. But Moscow and Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia, are not going to even discuss the issue of the pullout, according to Russian policymakers and pundits.
Both local and international observers have long considered the Georgian lawmakers’ move a foregone conclusion, as Georgian-Russian relations are currently at an all-time low. Even before the results of the crucial vote on the parliamentary resolution urging Russian peacekeepers to withdraw from South Ossetia became known, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told a news conference in Vienna that Georgian authorities’ conduct toward the Russian military contingent deployed in the secessionist region had gone “beyond all limits” of decency.
The resolution bluntly accuses Russia of trying to “annex” Georgia’s region and asks the government to review the key aspects of the 1992 Sochi Accord with a view toward replacing the Russian contingent with an “efficient international peacekeeping operation.” It also suggests opening talks with potential foreign partners.
It would appear that the resolution does not signal Tbilisi’s withdrawal from the Sochi Accord and a demand for the immediate pullout of the Russian forces. According to one senior Georgian legislator, the document seeks to force Russia to engage in negotiations on “changing the peacekeeping mission’s format.” The Georgian side names Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and Latvia as possible participants in the international peacekeeping forces in the South Ossetia conflict zone. Russia, some Georgian parliamentarians say, could also be a part of the international contingent but “should not have a monopoly role.” The Georgians have made it clear, however, that Tbilisi will be prepared to withdraw from the Sochi Accord if Russia refuses to negotiate or tries to drag the talks out indefinitely.
The bulk of Moscow’s policymaking and analytic community regards the Georgian legislators’ move as absolutely inconsequential. “We are dealing with a political gesture — a demonstrative and risky one, but not more than that,” opines one characteristic commentary.
Both Moscow and Tbilisi understand that there will be no withdrawal of the Russian peacekeeping force, Mikhail Babich, deputy chairman of the Russian State Duma Defense Committee, told the daily Kommersant. Dialogue is possible only on “how to perfect the activity of our contingent so that it can fulfill its tasks in the most efficient way,” added the Russian lawmaker.
The Russian side maintains that the “world community” has absolutely nothing to do with the peacekeeping operation in South Ossetia because “since 1992 this process has always been and is now a quadrilateral one,” as it involves Russia, Georgia, South Ossetia, as well as North Ossetia, a Russian republic. While some Russian analysts concede that only Western pressure can eventually cause the changes in the format of the peacekeeping contingent, they are quick to add that the West is in no hurry to push Moscow on this issue. The United States and European Union, they contend, have a good reason for this: a Russian pullout from South Ossetia “might lead to a new civil war.” In this sense, the statement issued by the Russian Foreign Ministry is very symptomatic: it claims that the “decision of Georgian lawmakers clearly indicates that Georgia may embark upon a path leading to the destabilization of the entire [Caucasus] region.”
Interestingly, the initial reaction of Russia’s top military brass was more restrained. The Georgian parliament’s resolution regarding Russian peacekeepers “will not affect their activity in the immediate future — they will continue fulfilling their mission,” the defense ministry’s spokesman said.
The Kremlin, however, decided it would be useful to serve a notice to the hotheaded Georgians that their “irresponsible behavior” would have a price. To be sure, Tbilisi can eventually achieve the dissolution of the Sochi Accord, which will lead to changes in the format of the Russian peacekeeping force deployed in South Ossetia, says Yevgeny Kozhokin, director of the Russian Institute of Strategic Studies. But this, he immediately adds, might entail some serious “political and juridical consequences for the Georgian side.” Clearly, it is a very thinly veiled threat of Russia’s possible annexation of the unrecognized statelet.
(Rossiiskaya gazeta, Vremya novostei, Vedomosti, Kommersant, February 16; RIA-Novosti, February 15; Politcom.ru, February 8)