Who Will Detonate The South Ossetian Powder Keg?

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 1 Issue: 72

The hostilities continue in Georgia’s breakaway region of South Ossetia. This week the Georgian and Ossetian sides are accusing each other of firing at villages in the conflict zone. On August 12, beginning 5:30 a.m., Ossetian separatists were shelling ethnic-Georgian-populated villages and moving their heavy armored vehicles closer to the villages. The Georgian side reported casualties among both the civilian population and interior troops and claimed that most of the houses in the Georgian villages of Tamarasheni and Achabeti had been destroyed. Meanwhile, the South Ossetian authorities blamed Tbilisi for the attacks. Irina Gagloeva, spokeswoman for the South Ossetian authorities, said that fighting in several Ossetian villages had continued overnight despite promises from Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania of a ceasefire. Gagloeva delivered an ultimatum from the South Ossetian government that if Georgian forces continue to shell Tskhinvali and Ossetian villages, then South Ossetian forces would purge the ethnic-Georgian villages of any paramilitary squads.

After an emergency midnight meeting with President Mikheil Saakashvili on August 12, the Georgian Minister of the Interior, Irakli Okruashvili, said that the Georgian side would no longer leave Ossetian attacks unanswered.

On August 11, according to South Ossetian authorities, the Ossetian-populated villages of Prisi and Sarabuki came under fire from Georgia-controlled territory. Both Georgian and Ossetian sources said that the gunfire, which continued throughout the night, was as intense as in 1992, when the armed conflict was at its peak. “The Georgian side fired from the villages of Tamarasheni, Vanati, and Prisi using artillery, mortars, and machine guns,” Itar-Tass quoted a statement from the headquarters of the Joint Peacekeeping Force in South Ossetia. Meanwhile, the Georgian side claims that Ossetian military forces were firimg from the village of Prisi. Alexander Sukhitashvili, Shida Kartli regional police chief, said that shots were fired in the direction of the Georgian villages of Eredvi, Kheiti, and Tamarasheni.

Conflicting reports have emerged regarding casualties during the latest skirmish outside of Tskinvali, the capital of South Ossetia. Itar-Tass reports a spokesman for the Joint Peacekeeping Force in South Ossetia as having “no information about casualties,” while Gagloeva reported three wounded on the South Ossetian side. According to Gagloeva, as a result of gunfire, the Ossetian village of Sarabuki had been 70% destroyed.

Shortly after the incident, the Georgian Ministries of Security the Interior accused the Russian peacekeeping troops deployed in the South Ossetian of cooperating with the South Ossetian militias and even participating in the atacks on the Georgian villages. “For the first time the Russian peacekeepers openly fixed their position in the South Ossetian conflict. During last night’ overnight shelling they provided the South Ossetian militias with information regarding the movements of Georgian peacekeepers,” Deputy Security Minister Gigi Ugulava said at a news briefing on August 11.

Symptomatically, the shootouts occurred as the Georgian Minister of Defense, Giorgi Baramidze, and the State Minister for Conflict Settlements, Giorgi Khaindrava, wrapped up a two-day (August 9-10) visit to Moscow, during which they held talks with several top Russian officials, including Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov. South Ossetia was one of the central issues at the talks.

After the meeting, Baramidze spoke about the necessity of demilitarizing the region by removing all military groups other than peacekeeping forces. Both Russian and Ossetian officials claim that Georgia keeps additional forces in the conflict zone. But Moscow and Tskhinvali remain silent, however, about the permanent inflow of armed mercenaries and military hardware from Russia to support the South Ossetian separatist regime. Recently the military arsenal of the Ossetian separatists has been augmented by three military helicopters. The Georgian security officials claim to have accurate information that at least 400 inhabitants of South Ossetia have drilled at the military base of the 19th division of the Russian 58th army, headquartered in Vladikavkaz, the capital of neighboring North Ossetia.

On August 9, Givi Targamadze, chair of the Georgian parliament’s Committee on Defense and Security, claimed that the Ossetian forces plan to assassinate South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoiti and use the incident to justify a new round of attacks to cleanse ethnic-Georgian villages. Targamadze warned that the Georgian government’s retaliation to this expected move would be “very tough.” This latest burst of violence in South Ossetia has undermined the planned face-to-face negotiation between Georgian Prime Minister Zhvania and Kokoiti.

It seems that this latest round of violence, coupled with the August 4 incident, when a still-unidentified group shot at the motorcade of Andrei Kokoshin, chair of Russian parliaments Committee on CIS Affairs, during his trip in South Ossetia, is set to undermine a possible breakthrough in the peace process. It also indicates that Russia is intent on sabotaging any deal that does not directly involve Moscow. It is likely that pressure from Moscow caused the South Ossetian authorities to unexpectedly abandon its support for direct dialogue with the Georgian government and announce that a meeting would only be possible with Russian mediation.

The latest commentaries on the various approaches to conflict settlement frequently mention the possible involvement of the United States in this process, since Georgia is widely perceived as a U.S. strategic ally in the region. U.S.-Russian cooperation helped to resolve peacefully the recent crisis in Ajaria. However, it appears that neither Russia nor Georgia have any concrete settlement plan for the United States to consider. During his recent visit in the United States Saakashvili was directly told to seek ways to peacefully settle the problem.

Recently, the Georgian government has resumed its campaign to return Ossetian families to the various regions of Georgia, from which they were ousted during the ethnic clashes of 1990-92. They are to receive compensation for the losses incurred during the conflict. “Promoting an active ‘pro-Georgian campaign’ among the population of the breakaway region is among the top priorities of Tbilisi,” said Giorgi Bokeria, a member of the Georgian parliament. Several days ago, Georgian authorities set up a transmitter in the village of Avnevi, in Znauri District, to rebroadcast Georgian television programs in the breakaway region.

However, the political dimension of possible conflict-resolution steps remain vague. Tbilisi is now offering the breakaway region a poorly defined “wider autonomy.” While declaring that large-scale armed conflict is unacceptable in the small region, Tbilisi, nevertheless, continues to exhibit a readiness to defend ethnic Georgians in the breakaway region by all means, including military. A wave of Georgian refugees fleeing the breakaway region would be a worst-case scenario for Saakashvili’s government.

Meanwhile, the Russian approach appears designed to turn the region into a powder keg, by stockpiling as much firepower as possible there. Moscow justifies its actions with the need to protect Russian citizens, which constitute almost 90% of the population of South Ossetia. The current attempts to stonewall a settlement of the South Ossetian problem, which seemed to be very close to resolution just two months ago, lends credence to the theory that Moscow is raising the political stakes because it thinks that Georgia has yet to repay its “Ajarian debt” to Russia.

(Strana.ru, RIA Novosti, August 12; TV-Rustavi 2, TV-Imedi, Interpress, Civil Georgia, Resonance, www.gzt.ru, www.polit.ru, August 10; Kavkasia-Press, Itar-Tass, August 10, Regnum, August 8).