Secretary of the Russian Security Council Igor Ivanov paid an urgent visit to Tbilisi on May 17 to negotiate with Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili and other top officials on the position of the Georgian breakaway regions. Symptomatically, Ivanov’s visit followed shortly after U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice came to Moscow to discuss events in South Caucasus, among other things.
On May 14, officials of the self-proclaimed Republic of South Ossetia hosted Russia-mediated talks with Georgia at the breakaway region’s capital of Tskhinvali. The talks were aimed at defusing the growing concerns of the Ossetians in light of a May 11 news conference during which Saakashvili stated that, after restoring Tbilisi’s control over Ajaria, the time had come to regain other breakaway regions. “Georgia is starting reunification,” Saakashvili proclaimed. (Prime News May 11, Dilis Gazeti, 24 Hours May 12).
Despite Tbilisi’s assurance to adhere to a negotiated settlement of the 14-year long conflict, Ossetian separatists have begun implementing security measures, likely keeping the Ajarian scenario in mind. Eduard Kokoiti, self-styled president of South Ossetia, met Teimuraz Mansurov, chairman of Russia’s Parliament of North Ossetia, to discuss joint steps to counter Tbilisi’s plans. “The current situation obliges North Ossetia to protect South Ossetia,” said Mansurov after the meeting. (Mtavari Gazeti, Inter Press May 10)
South Ossetian officials claim to have information about Tbilisi’s plans to provoke political disorder in Tskhinvali, timing such provocations with “parliamentary elections” in South Ossetia, scheduled for May 23. The outcome of the elections will largely determine the chances of Tbilisi to stage “revolution” in the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali.
Stanislav Kochiev, chair of the South Ossetian “parliament”, said that any forcible action by Tbilisi against South Ossetia would entail bloodshed. Jemal Karkusov, secretary of the South Ossetian “security council,” said the replication of the Ajarian scenario is hardly possible in Tskhinvali because unlike Ajarians, the Ossetians are not ethnic Georgians. “Tbilisi must take this into account,” he said. (Mtavari Gazeti May 11)
The South Ossetian separatists particularly emphasized that most inhabitants of the region have Russian citizenship, and aspire to unification with North Ossetia. They warn that the use of military force against South Ossetia by Tbilisi would automatically involve conflict with North Ossetia, and that Russia would not stay neutral. Separatists also pin their hopes on Russian peacekeeping troops (about 1,500 servicemen), deployed in South Ossetia since 1992 on the basis of a Georgian-Russian agreement.
Meanwhile, Georgian officials make no attempt to hide Tbilisi’s intentions towards South Ossetia. In an interview with 7 Days weekly, David Zurabishvili, deputy chair of the parliamentary ruling party (National-Democrats), said that a tactical scheme had already been worked out with regard to immediate measures. Emphasis will be placed on stirring up the civic sector, economic leverage, international support and the demonstration, but not use of military force, he said. (7 Days May 7-13)
This deliberate openness could be part Tbilisi’s information warfare, which is designed to keep the separatist government under pressure while sounding out the mood of the South Ossetian establishment. Tbilisi may also hope to plant “revolutionary” sentiments where possible and cause dissension in the separatists’ camp, said to be torn by infighting over spheres of influence.
For the last decade, circumstances in South Ossetia have improved Tbilisi’s standing vis-à-vis the province. Ethnic antagonism between the Georgians and Ossetians has gradually decreased. Increasing contact between Georgian and South Ossetian civic groups have resulted in several joint projects, including a Georgian-Ossetian secondary school. Also, the separatist government has failed to cope with the severe socio-economic conditions in the region. All this plays into the hands of the Georgian government. Last December, the Ossetian population gave a warm reception to Mikhail Saakashvili when, despite resistance of the South Ossetian authorities, he visited the region.
The international factor is also important. Some Georgian and Russian analysts have already noted that South Ossetia and Abkhazia might become a “token coin” in a political bargain between Washington and Moscow, which Tbilisi will try to capitalize on. Russian analyst Andranik Migranian predicts that Russian and American interests will combine when Georgia attempts to regain its breakaway regions. According to Migranian, Saakashvili understands that direct confrontation between Moscow and Washington is not an option, and he will try to use US-Russian cooperation in settling the conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
In an interview with the Georgian daily 24 Hours, Sergey Kortunov, chair of the Russian committee of foreign policy planning and deputy head of the experts’ group to the Russian Council of Federations, said the end of the Ajarian crisis was the result of intensive negotiations between Moscow and Washington. “Washington did not assign Moscow a secondary role. Everything was settled on the basis of mutual agreement and everybody won” he said. (24 Hours May 13). The Wall Street Journal (May 7) made a similar analysis in an article discussing Ajaria in the context of US-Russia relations. The West has made it clear that that Russia would face economic pressure and a concentration of NATO forces in the Baltic States if it fails to leave Georgia and Moldova forever, writes the Russian weekly Argumenti i Fakti (May 14, #19).
Nowadays, Georgia increasingly finds itself in the Western sphere of interest, especially American strategic interest in the field of international oil projects. The Resonance daily (May 14) alludes to the idea of a Moscow-Washington-Tbilisi triangle proposed by the Georgian National Security Council last year. The newspaper writes that a wise balance of Russian and American interests in the South Caucasus could contribute to the settlement of frozen conflicts in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The United States needs a stable, transparent and predictable Russia, while the latter acutely needs American investments and assistance to become a full-scale player in the international community. This might mean that the settlement of conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia will take place under a face-saving formula for Russia, as in Ajaria.