Recent weeks have brought alarming developments from Georgia’s separatist South Ossetia region. Kidnappings, militant statements, Russian military assistance to the separatists, and fruitless peace negotiations — the same factors that contributed to armed conflict in the region last summer — are fully present.
On June 6, four ethnic Georgians disappeared from the Georgian village Kurta, which is in the conflict zone. Ethnic Georgian locals allege that Ossetian gunmen abducted the four in retaliation for the May 29 skirmish between Georgian police and an Ossetian detachment near another Georgian village, Tamarasheni. That scuffle left one Georgian and four Ossetians dead. The joint Georgian-Ossetian investigative team has yet to determine the reason for the shootout, but the incident suggests that some internal and external forces hold the means to provoke violence in the conflict zone whenever the situation begins to improve. Ossetian leaders deny any link between the June 6 kidnapping and the May 29 clash.
On June 8, Giorgi Khaindrava, Georgian state minister for conflict resolution, began negotiating with the Ossetian side and with the command of the Russian peacekeepers in the conflict zone to secure the release of the kidnapped Georgians (Caucasus Press, June 7, 8, 9).
Khaindrava described the situation as “very difficult” and even asked the media not to fuel the situation. “Every incorrect, rash word could initiate events that would be very difficult to stop,” he said. According to him, decisions by the Joint Control Commission (the quadripartite negotiating mechanism comprised of Georgian, Russian, North and South Ossetian officials) “have never been put into practice” because of the lack of political will and coordination. Khaindrava alluded to the non-fulfillment of the JCC decision to dismantle Georgian police posts in the area, which the South Ossetians had demanded. “That does not depend on us alone. We have no authority over the force agencies,” Khaindrava added. He stressed that representatives of force agencies in the conflict zone frequently mistreat and irritate locals. “Our recommendation is to have as few armed people in the [conflict] zone as possible,” he said (TV Rustavi 2, Imedi TV, May 30).
Recently some South Ossetian officials, including self-styled president Eduard Kokoiti, have tried to verbally taunt Tbilisi. While in Moscow, Kokoiti said that by 2007 South Ossetia would be an “independent republic both de jure and de facto.” Kokoiti charged that Tbilisi is using U.S. and NATO military assistance to “organize a blitzkrieg in South Ossetia.” Kokoiti said the killing of the four Ossetians was a planned provocation by the Georgian security service. “We do not accept the game of muscle-flexing. Peace talks are necessary and we are ready for them,” he stressed (Interfax, Itar-Tass, May 30, June 1, 3).
The Georgian daily Khvalindeli Dge (June 7) quotes Oleg Alborov, secretary of South Ossetia’s security council, as saying, “We will bring Georgians and [President Mikheil] Saakashvili to their knees at the square in Tbilisi,” alluding to the humiliation suffered by 40 captured Georgian policemen in Tskhinvali last summer.
Meanwhile Russia, instead of heeding the Council of Europe’s call to make a “constructive contribution” to conflict settlement in Abkhazia and South Ossetia continues to provide military assistance to the South Ossetian separatists (Media News, June 6). In a formal letter to the Russian Foreign Ministry and JCC, Khaindrava protested the delivery of some $2 million in humanitarian aid from the Moscow Mayor’s office to South Ossetia. Tbilisi claims that the aid included military vehicles, field kitchens, tents, uniforms, and other military equipment. The “humanitarian aid” entered the region through the Roki tunnel, which Georgia does not control. Georgian analysts and officials view the new Russian “military injection” as a prelude to renewed armed conflict.
South Ossetian officials, in turn, argue that the region is only taking defensive measures. Vazha Khachapuridze, Kokoiti’s ethnic-Georgian envoy for Georgian-Ossetian relations, predicts another bloody summer in the region (See EDM, July 14, 2004; August 12, 2004; August 13, 2004). Khachapuridze said that Georgian-Ossetian relations have soured after the recent deadly skirmish and that “negotiations are in a disastrous condition.” In his words, “The Georgian side needs to make considerable efforts to calm down the embittered Ossetians, using experienced negotiators, tolerance, concessions, and economic leverage (Resonance, June 3; Civil Georgia, June 4; Akhali Taoba, June 6).
The Georgian government’s draft concept about settlement of the Georgian-Ossetian conflict, offering the region wide political and economic autonomy, has yet to be officially presented to the Ossetian party. Some analysts call on Tbilisi to overcome its inertia and urgently support the concept by deploying specific confidence-building measures, which might include acknowledging that the unsuccessful military campaign in South Ossetia in August 2004 was a mistake.
Some analysts also expect complications in Georgian-Ossetian relations after North Ossetian President Alexander Dzasokhov was replaced by hardliner Teimuraz Mamsurov, chair of the North Ossetian Parliament and an ex-KGB general (see EDM, June 9). They also predict that Moscow might try to spark tension in Georgia’s secessionist regions as it withdraws its military bases (Resonance, June 3; Khvalindeli Dge, June 7).