While Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili is preparing to address the January 26 session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe with “unprecedented” peace proposals for Georgia’s breakaway regions, a hostage drama in South Ossetia threatens to cloud his plans.
On January 19, the South Ossetian militia abducted the police chief of Eredvi (a village in the Georgian enclave in South Ossetia), Lado Chalauri, and his colleague Gocha Gvimradze. The next day, Georgian Police and Public Order Minister Vano Merabishvili officially prohibited Georgian policemen from entering the conflict zone without ministerial authorization. This partially confirmed rumors that the policemen had been lured into Ossetian-controlled territory and then abducted.
Prior to the police officers’ capture, Georgian law enforcement had arrested an Ossetian, Alik Pukhaev, on charges of assassinating two Georgians last February. There were reports that Pukhaev’s relatives were behind the January 19 abduction. Ossetian representatives offered to exchange the two policemen for Pukhaev and two other Ossetians detained earlier as suspects in the deaths of ethnic Georgians. However, Merabishvili vehemently replied that the Georgian government would not exchange police for criminals.
On January 20, the Ossetians released Gvimradze but retained Chalauri, whom they reportedly accused of killing a Cossack mercenary during the hostilities in August 2004. Alexander Sukhitashvili, head of the Shida Kartli regional police, whom the Ossetians allowed to visit Chalauri, said that he had been severely tortured and critically wounded. The Ossetian side argues that Georgian law enforcement did not have the right to detain Pukhaev and other Ossetians in the conflict zone (24 Saati, January 21; Resonance, January 22).
Two days later, Georgian inhabitants of South Ossetia abducted 12 Ossetians, including Makhar Gasiev, the deputy minister of special affairs of South Ossetia. Simultaneously, an estimated 300 Georgian villagers and relatives of Chalauri blocked the road to Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia. They threatened to take up arms unless the Ossetians released Chalauri immediately. Later on the Georgians released Gasiev and eight Ossetians when the Ossetian militia, backed by Russian peacekeepers, attempted to free the hostages. However, at least three Ossetians still remain in captivity (TV Mze, January 23).
On January 22, commenting on the crisis in South Ossetia at a meeting of the National Security Council, Saakashvili called for avoiding provocations and reaffirmed Georgia’s refusal to exchange criminals for law-enforcement agents. He criticized Russian peacekeeping troops in the conflict zone whose commander, General Marat Kulakhmetov, failed to persuade the parties to release the hostages. Telephone negotiations between Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania and the chairman of the South Ossetian parliament, Stanislav Kochiev, failed to resolve the problem. Guram Vakhtangishvili, a Georgian parliamentarian elected in South Ossetia’s Georgian-populated Didi Liakhvi constituency, characterized the situation as “very strained” (Civil Georgia, Imedi TV, Rustavi-2, January 22-23). “Tskhinvali is in chaos and relatives of the criminal Pukhaev are in control of the situation there,” Merabishvili told a briefing on January 23
At Georgia’s request, the Joint Control Commission (JCC) — composed of Georgian, South and North Ossetian, and Russian officials — held an emergency meeting on January 24 to discuss ways to defuse the tension in the region and free the hostages. (Imedi TV, TV Mze, January 23).
After the meeting, Giorgi Khaindrava, Georgian State Minister for Conflict Resolution, stated that Chalauri would be released “very soon.” According to him, the parties agreed to jointly investigate Pukhaev’s case. Khaindrava said that Pukhaev and two other suspected Ossetians would be transferred to Tskhinvali soon. Two Ossetians taken hostage by Georgian citizens are expected to be released as well (TV-Mze, TV Rustavi-2, Civil Georgia, January 24).
Reports have surfaced that the Ossetians released Chalauri today (January 25), and that the Georgians returned the favor by releasing two Ossetians, Giorgi Khubezhov and Levan Khabalov. This exchange has defused tensions for several hours. At press time Georgians are protesting near the villages of Tamarasheni and Didi Liakhvi. Relatives of two Georgians killed last February in Tamarasheni by Ossetians are blocking the main road, demanding punishment for the killers.
Symptomatically, the current violence in South Ossetia erupted after Tbilisi had decided to offer the region greater autonomy (see EDM, January 20). Keeping the atmosphere tense in South Ossetia plays into the hands of Russia, which is striving to justify its military presence in the region, and Ossetian president Eduard Kokoiti, who has previously managed to mobilize Ossetians behind him by raising the specter of Georgian aggression. Local analysts believe the current outbreak of violence is one more attempt by Russia and the Ossetian separatists to lure Georgia into large-scale armed conflict.
The Georgian press, based on sources in South Ossetia, report that the Ossetian military is digging in near Georgian villages and about 200 Russian paratroopers disguised as mercenaries conducted military exercises in the Ossetian village of Nauru (Alias, January 19). Valery Barankevich, South Ossetian defense minister, explained the exercises as a response to the opening of new Georgian reservists camps 10 kilometers away from Tskhinvali. Rumors that Georgia plans a military invasion in South Ossetia this spring have been circulating in the region for the last weeks (Akhali Versia, January 19).
Vazha Khachapuridze, the sole ethnic Georgian representative in the South Ossetian administration, said that the amount of military hardware concentrated near the North Ossetian entrance to the Roki tunnel is sufficient for the Ossetian forces to launch an offensive against Georgian cities, including Tbilisi (Alia, January 19).
Kokoiti, currently in Moscow, had reshuffled his administration before his departure. Analysts say that the clash of clan interests in the region is continuing and Kokoiti is concerned for his personal safety. On January 18, Kokoiti fired interior minister Robert Guliev, who had openly confronted Kokoiti over his brother’s illegal activities. Prime minister Victor Sanakoev and minister of agriculture Victor Shaverdov have also lost their jobs. They reportedly disagreed with Kokoiti’s policy toward Georgia (Akhali Versia, January 19).
Kokoiti, who is said to be fully under Moscow’s thumb, has recently “invited” a Russian citizen and career FSB officer, Anatoly Yarovoy, to chair the South Ossetian Security Council. “We should probably expect that in the near future all of the South Ossetian cabinet will be appointed by Russia,” Georgian Foreign Minister Salome Zourabichvili predicted (Rustavi-2, January 17).