On July 8 the Ossetian militia captured 47 Georgian servicemen and publicly humiliated them by forcing them to their knees before Russian TV cameras, roiling tensions between Tskhinvali and Tbilisi. When Ossetia released most of the captive on July 9, the highly explosive situation was slightly defused. However, three Georgian servicemen, including the commander of the captured unit, remain in an Ossetian prison. They should be freed in the immediate future, after a recent decision by the South Ossetian Security Council. Vazha Khachapuridze, the sole ethnic Georgian in the South Ossetian administration, said that this decision has nothing to do with the July 14 meeting of the Joint Control Commission in Moscow (Rustavi-2, July 13). The servicemen and their relatives, however, did not confirm this information.
Meanwhile, the Georgian Ministry of State Security is investigating the circumstances surrounding the capture, and it is also questioning the freed servicemen. Irakli Okruashvili, Minister of Interior, said that whoever ordered the servicemen to lay down their arms and surrender will face criminal charges (TV Rustavi 2, July 9). Minister of State Security Vano Merabishvili told a news conference on July 9 that investigators have particularly hard questions for Irakli Surmava, commander of the captured unit, whose personnel files “arouse suspicion.” Ossetian officials claim that Surmava refuses to go back to Tbilisi and prefers to serve a prison term in Tskhinvali (TV Mze, July 12).
Although Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and other officials claim that “thanks to the energetic moves over the last few days,” they have managed to “avert a serious armed conflict,” latent confrontation and sporadic skirmishes still take place in the conflict zone. During the last week as many as five Georgian servicemen were wounded. The Ossetian party does not report its loses. (TV-Rustavi-2, TV-Imedi, July 12).
Many details about the conflict remain uncertain and highly sensitive. How many mercenaries are there in Ossetia? What military preparations have been undertaken? What exactly is the role of the Russian peacekeepers?
Saakashvili has openly accused the Russian peacekeepers of a pro-Ossetian bias and said their mandate in the Georgian-Ossetian conflict zone “needs to be revised.” He also accused Russia of conspiring to send arms to the breakaway region. “Our intelligence did a very good job. We know exactly how many shells, bullets, and pieces of hardware have been brought from Russia not only to South Ossetia but also to Abkhazia. We know exactly which groups in Moscow provided this; we know exactly how much money has been sent by these groups to various separatists; we know exactly how many criminals have crossed [into Georgia] from Russia — about 190 men that are in a hotel in Java. They are true criminal-type elements,” he said (Imedi TV, TV-Rustavi-2, Interpress, Civil Georgia, BBC, July 12).
Although the Georgian party speaks of 200 mercenaries, independent sources and the local population say the actual number is nearer 2,000. According to Irina Gagloyeva, head of the print and information committee of South Ossetia, as many as 1,000 people were involved in the latest incident. They were not ethnic Ossetians, but people who had arrived from Abkhazia, Cossacks from Kuban and Perm, as well as people from North Ossetia, the Trans-Dniester region, and Cherkassia. “They have come to Ossetia of their own free will and are not mercenaries. Yet, they are ready, if necessary, to support their South Ossetian friends,” she added (TV-Mze, July 12).
Valery Arshba, the self-styled vice-president of Georgia’s other breakaway region, Abkhazia, said that the Abkhaz are closely watching the developments in South Ossetia and are ready to render any necessary assistance to Tskhinvali. “We are not going to remain indifferent towards our South Ossetian brothers. We will help them as we can,” the Abkhaz news agency Apsnypress quoted Arshba as saying on July 12. “Georgia is using Ossetia to rehearse attack on us,” Vyacheslav Eshba, Abkhazia’s defense minister, told the Interfax-Military News Agency on July 12 (Civil Georgia, July 13).
On July 13 Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania reaffirmed the presence of Russian and North Caucasian mercenaries. “They pose no threat to us, but we do not want to use force,” he said. “We keep the situation under control and are ready for any type of scenario.” Zhvania reiterated that the Georgian government still hopes for a peaceful resolution of the conflict and would not be provoked by Eduard Kokoiti, the president of South Ossetia (Interpress, TV-Rustavi-2, TV-Imedi, Civil Georgia, July 13).
At the same time, Russian and Ossetian officials both assert that around 3,000 Georgian troops are currently stationed in the conflict zone, which “escalates tensions in the region.” They demand that Georgia to pull out its excess troops. On July 12, Kokoiti charged that Georgian armed forces used an American-made “Iroquois” military combat helicopter to enter South Ossetian airspace. “This once again shows that the Georgian side is not prepared to abide by the agreements reached,” Kokoiti told journalists. The helicopter was spotted over the village of Znauri. Kokoiti said the Ossetians could have shot down the helicopter but instead adhered to their promise to not escalate the conflict. Moscow was also prompted to condemn Tbilisi. “These kinds of steps from the Georgian side trigger counter-measures by the South Ossetians, which have already begun arming themselves,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said at a news conference (NTV “Strana i Mir,” Itar-Tass, July 12; RIA Novosti, Itar-Tass, July 13).
Indeed, the South Ossetians continue saber rattling by conducting large-scale military exercises. Anatoly Barankevich, defense minister for South Ossetia, told Itar-Tass on July 12 that both regular South Ossetian soldiers and volunteers were taking part in the maneuvers. Symptomatically, the South Ossetian authorities do not attempt to hide their military preparations. The widely televised military exercises showed the Ossetians well equipped with tanks, armored personnel carriers, and self-propelled artillery (TV-Imedi, TV-Rustavi-2, TV-“Mze”).
This week has also seen a “humanitarian-aid war” emerge between Georgia and Russia. Russian authorities have begun to send humanitarian aid to the breakaway region. But on July 13 the Georgian side blocked a convoy of trucks from the Russian Ministry for Civil Defense, Emergencies, and Natural Disasters bound for the breakaway region. The trucks were carrying signs reading. “President Putin’s gift to South Ossetia.” Despite efforts by members of the Russian convoy and Svyatoslav Nabzdorov, commander of the Russian peacekeeping troops, Georgian authorities did not let the freight reach its destination, the village of Ergneti in the conflict zone. “Providing humanitarian aid is part of the peacekeeping troops’ mandate,” insisted Nabzdorov.
Georgian officials, nevertheless, say that any freight transported through the territory of Georgia must clear Georgian customs (Civil Georgia, TV-Rustavi-2, TV-Imedi, July 13). This latest incident will likely fan the flames in Georgian-Russian relations. Tbilisi is also concerned that the increasing military pressure on the Georgian-populated villages in South Ossetia might create waves of refugees fleeing their homes.