Russian Military Blinks Before Georgia In South Ossetia

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 1 Issue: 21

Georgian Internal Affairs Ministry troops, backed up by a special-forces unit, armored vehicles and helicopters, entered the so-called Georgian-Ossetian conflict zone on both sides of the demarcation line at noon on May 31. Tbilisi’s move was an instant response to the 10 AM warning by Russian Major-General Svyatoslav Nabzdorov, commander of “peacekeeping” troops, who demanded that Georgian police checkpoints be removed by 3 PM from the conflict zone. Tbilisi had introduced those checkpoints 10 days earlier to curb rampant smuggling from Russia via South Ossetia into the rest of Georgia.

The prompt, well-coordinated deployment of the Georgian force caused Nabdzorov to backtrack. According to Security Council Secretary Vano Merabishvili, “We showed them that we were not going to back down. You have all witnessed how quickly the command of peacekeeping troops changed its stance. They now say that they do not and will not intend to use force.” Georgia’s Chief of Staff, Lieutenant-General Givi Iukuridze, and Nabdzorov worked out an understanding whereby Russian “peacekeeping” troops guaranteed that they would not use force against Georgian police checkpoints, and Georgian troops agreed to withdraw from the “conflict zone” that evening. Georgian police checkpoints continue functioning in five Georgian-populated villages in South Ossetia (Georgian State Television, Rustavi-2 TV, Imedi-TV, May 31).

Georgian officials, including Merabishvili, Internal Affairs Minister Giorgi Baramidze, and Prosecutor General Irakli Okruashvili told the media that the Russian military and South Ossetian authorities are sharing in profits from smuggling, and have a vested interest in its continuation. When Nabdzorov issued his threat, the Georgians were on the verge of forcing the closure of the huge market in Ergneti, focus of the contraband trade from Russia into Georgia. Baramidze warned, “Georgia will use whatever means necessary to prevent anyone from wrecking anti-contraband measures, and will not allow Russian military units to seize the posts set up for that purpose. It is inadmissible for Russia and its units to attempt to use force on Georgia’s territory.” For his part, Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania underscored the broader political point that, “No one will be able, no one should even think of stopping us from establishing order on our territory in Georgia in absolutely all spheres” (Imedi-TV, Kavkasia-Press, May 31).

Tbilisi also announced yesterday that it would immediately move to make full use of its right to deploy 500 soldiers backed by armor in the conflict zone. Until now, Georgian forces in that zone fell far short of that number of troops.

Abkhaz and South Ossetian leaders reacted resentfully to the events of yesterday. South Ossetia’s self-styled President Eduard Kokoiti threatened to use force against Georgian troops if they advanced further. The threat lacked credibility, notwithstanding the few tanks and armored vehicles delivered to South Ossetia in 2002-2003 by Russia in violation of the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe. Kokoiti went on to reaffirm his intention to unify South Ossetia, with North Ossetia within the Russian Federation. In Abkhazia, would-be Prime Minister Raul Khajimba declared solidarity with South Ossetia, and reminded Tbilisi of the military defeats it suffered a decade ago in both places (Interfax, NTV Mir, May 31).

Russia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry issued a statement criticizing Georgia’s “strong-arm actions (that) do nothing to help the development of Russia-Georgia relations.” Urging Tbilisi to engage in “restoring trust” with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the statement cited the “large number of Russian citizens residing in those areas” – an oblique assertion of Russian droits de regard, based on mass conferral of Russian citizenship on the local populations in 2002-2003 in violation of Georgian law. Nevertheless, the overall tenor of the statement sounded moderate, consistent with the recent detente in Russia-Georgia relations (Interfax, Itar-Tass, May 31).

The Kremlin did not immediately react. It was Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili who announced that he and Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke by telephone yesterday. Praising the “positive trends” in bilateral relations, and the “warm personal rapport” between the two presidents, Saakashvili condemned the “impudent arbitrary acts” by the Russian military in South Ossetia. He pointed to yesterday’s events as proof that “Georgia’s fragmentation” is being halted and reversed (Georgian State Television, May 31).

While curbing contraband and reducing the income of secessionist authorities are goals conducive to a political settlement, negotiations remain frozen in the decade-old format, which consists of Georgia, South Ossetia, Russia, the latter’s republic of North Ossetia, and the OSCE. In fact, this five-sided format ensures multiple direct and indirect representation of Russia while isolating Georgia. This format must be disbanded if a political settlement is to be attained.