Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 110

The thaw at high altitudes in the Caucasus is again exposing Georgia to a flood of Russian accusations that it condones cross-border movements in both directions by Chechen rebels and other “international terrorists.” When Moscow took to threatening “preventive strikes” against Afghanistan, it simultaneously began charging that Taliban militants use Georgian territory to supply and reinforce the Chechens (see the Monitor, May 18). Never substantiated but constantly repeated, such accusations inevitably suggest that Moscow seeks to intimidate Tbilisi by raising the prospect of “antiterrorist” strikes on Georgian territory. In this situation, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is reinforcing the thin tripwire it had begun creating in January of this year in the Chechen sector of the Georgian-Russian border.

On June 3, the OSCE opened a permanent monitoring post in Omalo, a Georgian border village in that sector. The surrounding Georgian area had been repeatedly overflown and bombed by Russian planes coming in from Chechnya in recent months. Staffed by fourteen observers, Omalo is the OSCE’s second permanent post in that sector. The first is in the village of Shatili. According to the Georgian border troops command, only ten OSCE observers–less than half of the original contingent–are currently deployed there.

The OSCE plans to increase to forty-two the overall number of its observers on the Georgian side of the Chechen border. The mission’s size and mandate are to some extent subject to Russian consent in the organization’s Permanent Council in Vienna. While the OSCE’s presence should deter the use of massive force against Georgia in that area, it is not yet clear how the organization intends to deal with encroaching moves, such as the seizure of the nearby village of Pichkhvi by Russian airborne troops in a surprise raid in April. Tbilisi itself kept that incident under wraps for some time, lest it exacerbate relations with Moscow, but is still not making an issue of it (Prime-News, June 3; see the Monitor, May 3).

In the Kodori Gorge on June 1, brigands abducted two Danish officers from the United Nations military group observer group in Georgia and two British representatives of HALO Trust–an organization which promotes demining operations and safe disposal of the mines in conflict areas. A UN-employed Abkhaz interpreter, abducted with the group, was released the same day to convey the captors’ demand for a US$500,000 ransom. The high-altitude Kodori Gorge, in a corner of Abkhazia and hostile to the latter, has remained nominally under Tbilisi’s jurisdiction, but is in fact a no-man’s land (Prime-News, Kavkasia-Press, Tbilisi Radio, June 4). This incident is the second such in recent months. Last October, five UN military observers were abducted by an armed group and held for ransom. Senior Georgian officials negotiated with the captors and it was widely believed that ransom was paid, though both Tbilisi and the UN denied it. Part of the region of Svaneti–in which Kodori is situated–is largely left to its own devices by the central government (see the Monitor, October 18, 1999).

On June 3, a round of talks between the Tbilisi government and the breakaway South Ossetian authorities ended in the South Ossetian village of Java. They were the first held following the reelection of Eduard Shevardnadze as president of Georgia, on a platform which promised (among other things) a political settlement of the conflicts with Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In Java, the sides discussed an “interim document” which would set the framework for the follow-up negotiations on a final settlement–addressing the peacekeeping operation, security issues, law enforcement, repatriation of refugees, economic reconstruction and related issues pertaining to a transitional period, by the end of which the final documents should be signed.

The Java meeting, however, stopped short of dealing with South Ossetia’s political status, which is the core issue in the interim document as well as in the negotiations toward a final settlement. According to the president’s personal envoy for conflict settlement issues, Irakly Machavariani, who led the Tbilisi side at these talks, they deferred the status issue for the next round, to be held under the OSCE’s auspices in Vienna (Prime-News, Tbilisi Radio, June 3).

The format suggests that Georgia and supportive Western countries are redoubling efforts to internationalize the negotiating process. They seek to leave behind the post-conflict format imposed by Russia, which gathered the Georgian central government, South Ossetia, and the North Ossetia Republic of the Russian Federation, under the Russian government’s sponsorship and with the OSCE in an ancillary role. That format, like the one for negotiations on the Abkhazia conflict, tended to freeze the negotiating processes as well as the two secessions. Georgian and Western efforts to internationalize the two negotiations make very slow headway against Russian and Abkhaz resistance. The South Ossetian leadership seems slightly less intractable.