The current situation in Georgia’s breakaway South Ossetia region shows that the December 2005 plans for a peaceful settlement of this 16-year old conflict (see EDM, December 15, 2005) largely remain on paper. There is no progress toward conflict settlement despite the increased political and economic involvement of international organizations and the West. The first-ever donors’ conference devoted to the economic rehabilitation of the conflict zone, held June 14 in Brussels, raised a total of €7.9 million. Yet the Ossetian separatists portrayed the conference as a “serious and credible step” towards international recognition of South Ossetia.
The OSCE- and Russia-mediated formal peace talks aimed at promoting the peace plan’s core points — confidence-building measures, economic rehabilitation, and demilitarization –increasingly seem empty promises, since both Georgian and Ossetian leaders instead tend to rely on military strength fed by the West and Russia, respectively.
Recent weeks have been marked by provocations and mutual accusations of saber rattling, and the two sides have been on the verge of large-scale conflict at least three times.
First, on May 27 Georgian law-enforcement agents detained about 40 ethnic Ossetians in the conflict zone, saying they had entered Georgian territory from the Russian province of North Ossetia without visas. According to Ossetian sources, special troops from the Georgian Interior and Defense Ministries severely beat 25 of the detainees, all residents of South Ossetia, before they were released. The Georgian authorities confirmed the beatings after the Georgian media interviewed the victims in the city of Gori.
The South Ossetian militia responded by capturing and brutally beating several Georgian villagers, whom they freed only after the Georgian side had released its detainees. Ossetian representatives pounced on the incident to unleash anti-Georgian propaganda and accuse President Mikheil Saakashvili’s government of planning military aggression against South Ossetia. While high-ranking Georgian officials, including Ombudsman Sozar Subari and State Minister for Conflict Resolution Giorgi Khaindrava, promised to investigate the incident and punish the guilty, no progress has been announced. Khaindrava, the chief Georgian negotiator at the quadripartite Joint Control Commission for conflict settlement, evidently failed to secure the timely release of the detained Ossetians in order to avoid violence. This indirectly revealed his limited influence compared to the “war party” reportedly spearheaded by the hawkish Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili, a native of the region. Okruashvili continuously claims that he will either celebrate the coming New Year in Tskhinvali — the South Ossetian capital — or resign.
Symptomatically, the shelling of Tskhinvali last September during the celebration of the 15th anniversary of the region’s secession from Georgia (see EDM, September 22, 29, 2005) also remains uninvestigated.
Second, according to Ossetian officials a Georgian police special unit entered an area of the conflict zone not controlled by the separatists on June 9. They stopped Ossetian cars passing through the Georgian village and fired at one car, wounded two Ossetians. Georgian officials confirmed the shooting incident, but said nobody was hurt.
Then on June 14, Georgian police moved their checkpoint near the Georgian village of Prisi 900 meters (about half a mile) toward Tskhinvali. The Ossetians then moved their checkpoints closer to Georgian villages. Guram Vakhtangishvili, a parliamentarian elected from the Georgian enclave in the conflict zone, was the first Georgian official to publicly confirm that additional police troops has been dispatched to the conflict zone and justified it by the need to defend the local Georgians. With reference to “two absolutely competent sources,” Mikhail Mindzaev, the South Ossetian “interior minister,” claimed that an American had participated in the special operation in the conflict zone on June 9 when Georgian policemen arrested Ossetian resident Alan Bazzayev for distributing counterfeit U.S. dollar bills.
“In my view, actions that run counter to the course declared by the Georgian president serve our enemy’s interests,” Khaindrava said. He called the move either the “uncoordinated work of various [Georgian] government bodies,” or a “deliberate act of provocation.”
Third, on June 17, the Georgian Defense Ministry reported that the joint monitoring mechanism implemented June 15-16 in the conflict zone by representatives of the Joint Peacekeeping Force and OSCE observers found four illegally posted and heavily armed Ossetian detachments. On June 19, Khaindrava visited Tskhinvali to arrange a meeting between Mindzaev and his Georgian counterpart, Vano Merabishvili, to facilitate the implementation of the peace plan.
South Ossetian “president” Eduard Kokoiti gains political mileage ahead of the 2007 “presidential” elections by portraying himself as a defender of South Ossetian independence against a pending Georgian military invasion. Violent actions from Tbilisi only serve to confirm his argument. South Ossetian separatists and their backers in Russia continually find more arguments to support allegations about Georgian plans to solve the conflict by military means. This March Russian media publicized “Tiger’s Leap,” allegedly a secret plan for a seven-day Georgian blitzkrieg in South Ossetia. Tskhinvali also claims that on May 16 the Georgian Security Council adopted a four-stage plan to destabilize the situation in South Ossetia.
Tbilisi is assertively portraying South Ossetia as a route for drug and arms smuggling and a harbor for criminals and militarized detachments, endangering the security of the region (see EDM, February 9). This type of information warfare usually serves as a justification for an impending military campaign.
As Russia increasingly integrates South Ossetia politically and economically, Saakashvili is obviously in a great hurry. After hearing the lavish promises from Tbilisi, the Georgian establishment expects the government to restore Georgian jurisdiction over South Ossetia in the immediate future. After futile talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg on June 13 (see EDM, June 16), Saakashvili now is heading to Washington to seek support from George W. Bush.
(Resonansi, Akhali Taoba, June 17; TV-Imedi, June 17, 18; Civil Georgia, June 14-19; TV Rustavi-2, June 14, 16; Messenger, June 18; Regnum, June 7, 18; Interfax, Ekho Moskvy, June 9; Regnum May 28; nvo.ng.ru, March 31)