After several days of a violent war of words and escalating tension, the threat of an armed conflict in the secessionist region of South Ossetia appears to have passed. Before his departure for a three-day official visit to London on Monday, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili said Georgia’s leadership had managed to avert a bloody conflict with the “Ossetian separatists” and their Moscow backers. But the situation in South Ossetia remains uncertain, as Moscow and Tbilisi do not agree on how the South Ossetian problem should be resolved.
Since the confrontation flared last week between Georgia’s central government and the separatist regime in Tskhinvali, the capital of the de-facto independent South Ossetia, Moscow’s stance on the potential conflict has turned out to be ill defined. Despite the pugnacious rhetoric of top Russian diplomatic and military officials, the Kremlin seems to be divided over the issue with its various political factions being pulled in different directions. At the same time, the Saakashvili administration appears to be pursuing a three-pronged strategy — stepping up pressure on the renegade republic’s leadership, accusing “imperialist circles” in Moscow of undermining peace in the region, and offering an olive branch to the “healthy forces” within Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government. Tbilisi seems intent on engaging Moscow directly and seeks to resolve the confrontation over South Ossetia in bilateral talks with the Russian side.
Before leaving for London, Saakashvili specifically stressed Russia’s key role in settling the conflict, pointing out that it is “a Russian-Georgian issue.” Saakashvili explained, “We tried hard to avoid the Georgia-Ossetian question. But it didn’t work. This is an issue between Tbilisi and Moscow.” Furthermore, “We are ready for a constructive dialogue with Moscow, but if there are people from the Duma or elsewhere who will try to put pressure on us — it won’t work. We are not afraid. We are ready to solve all the issues with Russia.” Saakashvili also told reporters in Tbilisi that South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoiti “had instructions from certain circles in Moscow to begin a bloody war . . . But yesterday he and his masters understood that this could end badly for them,” the Georgian leader said. “It’s clear that with energetic actions over the past few days we have managed to overcome a serious conflict.”
On Sunday, July 11, Georgia’s National Security Council Secretary Gela Bezhuashvili departed to the Russian capital for talks with his Russian counterpart, Igor Ivanov.
Yet tensions persist between Moscow and Tbilisi, as three Georgian policemen remained in Russian custody despite Kokoiti’s pledge that they would be released. In what had appeared to be a goodwill gesture, Kokoiti on Sunday ordered that the police officers — the last held from a group seized last week — be handed over to Russian peacekeepers based in the region, who were then expected to turn them over to the Georgians. On its part, Moscow demands that Georgia return some 160 unguided missiles brought into South Ossetia as support for the Russian peacekeeping forces there. Georgian Interior Ministry forces seized the shipment on July 7, prompting South Ossetian fighters to take Georgian peacekeeping troops as hostages on July 8.
A senior Georgian official has accused the Russian peacekeepers of linking the handover of the policemen to the release of the Russian military trucks carrying the rockets. Georgia “does not intend to trade missiles for people,” Georgy Khaindrava, Georgia’s minister for separatist conflicts, said in televised comments late Sunday. He added that the missiles should be destroyed. Meanwhile, Russia’s Defense Minister, Sergei Ivanov, publicly displayed his ire over the issue and angrily demanded the return of the missiles on Monday. “This Russian military property must be returned where it was stolen, that is, in South Ossetia,” he said in London while on a visit that incidentally coincided with Saakashvili’s.
It would appear that, at this point, neither Tbilisi nor Moscow is prepared for a serious showdown in South Ossetia. The Saakashvili government clearly understands the differences between Ajaria, which was recently brought under Tbilisi’s control, and South Ossetia, with its ethnically distinct population and strong ties with Russia. At the same time, the Kremlin, according to some analysts, is currently preoccupied with other pressing issues — namely, stripping the Yukos oil company of its core assets — and is reluctant to get bogged down in another conflict in the volatile Caucasus. As one commentator suggested, the Kremlin “will do its level best to avoid an armed conflict in South Ossetia. And in the end this may entail tacitly helping Saakashvili to establish control in the region, as happened in Ajaria back in May.”
The potential for more confrontation still exists, however. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has stated that the Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia are acting within their mandate. Yet Saakashvili unambiguously said that he is keen to seriously revise the Russian peacekeepers’ mandate. Also, in contrast to the Russian position, Tbilisi wants to resolve the conflict outside the Joint Control Commision, which includes representatives from Russia, Georgia, South Ossetia, and North Ossetia.
In another sign of persisting tension, South Ossetian forces held military exercises on Monday. (Politcom.ru, Gazeta.ru, Interfax, July 9-12; Moscow Times, July 13).