Last week Georgia’s former defense minister, Irakli Okruashvili, accused the country’s pro-Western President Mikheil Saakashvili of large-scale corruption and conspiring to kill Badri Patarkatsishvili, a prominent businessman. Okruashvili claimed that then-prime minister Zurab Zhvaniya, who was found dead in a friend’s apartment in 2005, actually died somewhere else.
Okruashvili also accused Saakashvili of missing an opportunity to occupy the breakaway South Ossetia region with a lightning operation in 2006. “We could have taken the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali in several days with insignificant casualties,” stated Okruashvili. Georgian officials dismissed the allegations as “baseless and untrue.” Okruashvili was later arrested at the headquarters of his opposition party in the capital, Tbilisi, and charged with extortion, money laundering, abuse of power, and negligence during his time as defense minister. The arrest plunged Georgia into political turmoil. In one of the strongest shows of opposition to Saakashvili since he came to power, several thousand demonstrators rallied outside Georgia’s parliament building on Friday, September 28, to denounce the arrest, accusing the president of trying to silence a potential political rival (Itar-Tass, RIA-Novosti, Interfax September 26-28).
Moscow welcomed the anti-Saakashvili protests. The Russia Duma passed a resolution accusing Tbilisi of stifling democracy, political opposition, and human rights. The Saakashvili government was accused of mounting armed provocations against Abkhazia and South Ossetia and threatening Russian peacekeepers. The Duma also scolded the United States for “complete support of what the Georgian authorities are doing to the opposition.” The resolution connected the death of Zhvaniya with his plan to peacefully settle the conflict with South Ossetia (RIA-Novosti, October 2). The chairman of the Duma Committee on the Commonwealth of Independent States, Andrei Kokoshin, implicated “forces from over the ocean” of involvement in the cover-up of Zhvaniya’s death.
In fact, Patarkatsishvili is fine, and there was no known attempt on his life. Patarkatsishvili is a close business partner of self-exiled former Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky, who today is “public enemy number one,” according to the Kremlin. The Russian authorities have issued an international arrest warrant and demanded his extradition on crimes connected to Berezovsky’s activities. Okruashvili also accused Saakashvili of being too soft on battling separatists in the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and avoiding military action. Still, Moscow is tacitly supporting Okruashvili, apparently acting on the principle that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
Of all the allegations Okruashvili has made, the story of the planned invasion of South Ossetia seems to be the most plausible. According to Okruashvili, the surprise “special operation” to take over South Ossetia was planned for the beginning of 2006. Saakashvili, Okruashvili, Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili, and a handful of other top officials knew about the plan. In 2005 the Georgian parliament had demanded the withdrawal of Russian military bases and peacekeepers from its territory. Moscow’s failure to meet a March 15, 2006, deadline to withdraw should have been used, according to Okruashvili, to launch a surprise attack. Saakashvili failed to give the go-ahead and the opportunity was lost.
Okruashvili’s plan might have succeeded. During the months of February and March South Ossetia is, for all practical purposes, separated from Russia. The mountain passes are covered with snow, and the only road through the strategic Roki Tunnel is typically closed for weeks on end by avalanches. Tskhinvali, the local capital, is surrounded by Georgian-controlled villages and would have likely fallen, while Moscow would have been unable to send in reinforcements.
Russo-Georgian relations were deteriorating in 2006. In January 2006, gas pipelines and electricity lines supplying Georgia from Russia were sabotaged on Russian territory by plastic explosives. Saakashvili accused Russian special forces of carrying out the attack, while Moscow replied by accusing Tbilisi of mounting an anti-Russian slander campaign and “going hysterical” (RIA-Novosti, February 22, 2006). The Russian authorities never found or named the saboteurs.
During a March 2006 joint meeting of the North Ossetian and South Ossetian governments in the capital of North Ossetia, Vladikavkaz, Gennady Bukayev, aide to then-Russian prime minister Mikhail Fradkov, announced that the Russian leadership has decided “in principle” to annex South Ossetia and to form a new joint subject of the Russian Federation comprised of both Ossetias and named Alania (Vedomosti, March 23, 2006). By May 2006, Russia had virtually closed the border with Georgia to exports of wine, mineral water, and foodstuffs. Then-defense minister Sergei Ivanov announced that there was a “real threat” of a resumption of military hostilities and that the Russian troops would stay in South Ossetia (RIA-Novosti, June 2, 2006). A Russian force with some 150 pieces of armor was stationed at the north gate of the Roki Tunnel, ready to move into South Ossetia immediately. On September 27, 2006, four Russian military intelligence officers were arrested in Georgia and charged with espionage. In response, Moscow announced the closure of all air, sea, and land transport links with Georgian and the suspension of postal services and money transfers. Although the men were soon released and sent to Moscow, the sanctions remain in force.
It is clear that both Tbilisi and Moscow were genuinely preparing for armed conflict, while separatists in Ossetia and Abkhazia were apparently ready to provide an excuse for the onslaught. Today the situation does not seem to be much better (see EDM, October 1). Russia and Georgia have been teetering on the brink of war for some two years without going over, which is something of a miracle in itself.