The Georgian government faces new problems in its two breakaway provinces. Nightly shoot-outs have resumed in South Ossetia, while Abkhazia still has no clear winner in its October 3 presidential election.
Although no casualties have been reported in South Ossetia, recent developments very much resemble those of July-August, when sporadic, overnight shootings grew into armed clashes between South Ossetian and Georgian forces.
“As a result of pressure from the Ossetian separatists, the number of internally displaced persons from South Ossetia may increase by 25,000,” warned Guram Vakhtangashvili, who represents South Ossetia’s Georgian-populated Didi Liakhvi electoral district in parliament. He called on the government to take urgent measures to protect the Georgian residents. He added that Ossetian militia groups have retaken the strategic heights overlooking both the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, and the Georgian villages in the conflict zone, which Georgian forces had handed over to the peacekeeping troops in August.
In October, residents of Georgian villages in South Ossetia twice blocked the road connecting Tskhinvali with Java, a town in the northern part of the region, protesting against the frequent shootouts.
According to Georgian sources, the Ossetians have violated the ceasefire as many as 30 times over the last few days by shelling Georgian villages in the conflict zone. South Ossetian sources claimed that on October 26, 30-minute bursts of shelling came from the Georgian village of Tamarasheni. Also on October 26, armed Ossetians forced the administrations of five Georgian villages to remove the Georgian state flags from school and village administration buildings.
The Ossetians have at least two motives for pressuring the ethnic Georgian population. The first is to oust the Georgians from the region and the second is to lure Georgia into an armed conflict.
The recent skirmishes have certainly attracted the attention of officials in Tbilisi. Georgian Parliament chair Nino Burjanadze declared, “The Georgian government will no longer tolerate the terrorizing of the Georgian population and the desecration of the Georgian flag.” She called on the peacekeeping forces in the conflict zone (composed of Georgian, Russian, North and South Ossetian troops) to do their job, because some Georgian officials in the region accuse the Russian peacekeepers of siding with the South Ossetian militias. Indeed, a group of Georgian legislators has called for renouncing the June 24, 1992, treaty between Georgia, Russia, North and South Ossetia that serves as the legal basis for deploying peacekeepers in the region. However, the ruling party and its parliamentary majority consider this step premature.
Tbilisi is fully aware of the potentially catastrophic political, economic, and humanitarian consequences that a Georgian exodus from South Ossetia might create. Therefore, relying exclusively on the Russia-dominated peacekeeping troops would be careless. However, after the unsuccessful military campaign in South Ossetia this August, the Georgian government wants to follow the path of negotiations as long as possible.
A meeting between Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania and the president of the self-proclaimed South Ossetian republic, Eduard Kokoiti, is scheduled November 5-6 in Sochi, Russia. According to the Georgian State Minister for Conflict Resolution, Giorgi Khaindrava, the agenda will cover three principal issues: disarmament of the conflict zone, implementation of economic rehabilitation projects, and the renewal of dialogue between the parties.
Maia Tsaboshvili, chair of the NGO Iber-Ironi and a long-time advocate of Georgian-Ossetian dialogue, was reportedly involved in Tbilisi’s attempts to court South Ossetian leaders, including Kokoiti. She said that ill-considered actions by Tbilisi had allowed Kokoiti to resuscitate his faded popularity. Tsaboshvili also suggested that Prime Minister Zhvania is not the sole politician who determines Tbilisi’s policy towards South Ossetia. There are several political groups, including the power ministers, that pursue their own agendas regarding South Ossetia, thereby creating problems, she speculated.
Abkhazia is another example of competing interests. The aftermath of the controversial October 3 presidential elections has left the region mired in violence and lawlessness.
Late on October 28, the Abkhaz Supreme Court confirmed the results of the elections, which had declared opposition candidate Sergei Bagapsh president-elect. However, the decision was followed by protests by Raul Khajimba’s supporters, who stormed the Supreme Court building. Khajimba was known to be the favorite of both the incumbent Abkhaz government and Moscow. Khajimba defused tensions by calling on his supporters to remain calm, but the crowed kept vigil outside the court.
Then on October 29, the Court reversed its earlier decision and canceled the disputed election results. The Court ordered the Central Election Commission to re-run the presidential balloting throughout the entire territory of Abkhazia within two months. In response, Bagapsh supporters briefly seized the Sukhumi television station. Later one of the Supreme Court judges, Giorgi Akaba, convened a press conference and declared that he had been forced to reverse his decision by the crowd, and hence the court’s final ruling had “nothing in common with legality.”
In the wake of Supreme Court’s controversial ruling, outgoing Abkhaz President Vladislav Ardzinba issued an order on October 29 instructing the Central Election Commission to hold repeat presidential elections in the breakaway region within two months. Bagapsh has already condemned Ardzinba’s order as “illegitimate.”
These latest developments in Abkhazia further deepened the crisis of governance, although both Bagapsh and Khajimba have managed to restrain their supporters from resorting to violence. At the same time, it is obvious that Moscow is trying to restore its control over the situation in Abkhazia. More armed groups from Moscow-backed North Caucasian organizations have arrived in Sukhumi to support Khajimba.
Tensions and suspicions are running high. On October 30, Abkhaz Defense Minister Viacheslav Eshba ordered Abkhaz armed forces to be ready to rebuff a planned invasion by Georgian troops. Eshba also vowed that, despite the alert, the Abkhaz army would not interfere in the ongoing political crisis.
Georgian authorities deny any military preparations against Abkhazia. Nevertheless, they have stated that they would react to any Abkhaz hostility toward the ethnic Georgian population in Gali, the swing district that overwhelmingly voted for Bagapsh, thus triggering the latest unrest in Abkhazia.
(TV-Imedi, Rustavi-2, October 24, 26; Resonance, October 25, 26; lenta.ru, NTV, Itar-Tass, Civil Georgia, October 29; Interfax, gazeta.ru, TV-Rustavi-2, October 30).