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Analysis: South Ossetia Between War And Demilitarization

  • Liz Fuller

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Having exchanged fire on 9-10 July and incurred casualties on both sides, Georgia and its breakaway Republic of South Ossetia have retreated from the threshold of an all-out conflict, agreeing during talks on 11 July in the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali to "cease shooting and other provocative actions." And at a meeting in Moscow on 14 July of the Joint Control Commission tasked with monitoring the situation in the conflict zone, both Georgian and Russian representatives tentatively agreed on the need to demilitarize the entire region. On 15 July, however, South Ossetian officials alleged that Georgia had sent an additional 200- 800 Interior Ministry troops into South Ossetia -- a claim that Georgian government officials dismissed as disinformation. But even if Georgia observes the informal ceasefire, the open contempt with which senior Georgian officials now refer to the South Ossetian leadership suggests that the former still expect the international community to step in and pressure Moscow either to abandon its support for the South Ossetians, or to persuade them to capitulate.

Georgian National Security Council Secretary Gela Bezhuashvili and Georgian Minister for Conflict Resolution Giorgi Khaindrava both told journalists on 14 July after the Joint Control Commission meeting that Georgia will insist on the total demilitarization of South Ossetia, ITAR-TASS reported. Interfax quoted Bezhuashvili as referring to the region as "an enclave of bandit groups, stuffed with weaponry" which, he added, poses a threat to Russia as well as to Georgia. He said the heavy armor currently deployed in South Ossetia should be put in storage and then scrapped.

First Deputy Foreign Minister Valerii Loshchinin, who represented Russia at the meeting, voiced support for the proposed demilitarization, but made clear that it must apply equally to South Ossetian and Georgian illegal armed groups, ITAR-TASS reported. South Ossetian officials alleged last week that Tbilisi has deployed to South Ossetia members of the guerrilla organizations that previously operated in southern Abkhazia. Tbilisi has countered by accusing the leadership of the breakaway Republic of Abkhazia of sending fighters to reinforce the South Ossetian army. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov claimed on 11 July that Georgia has up to 3,000 armed men in South Ossetia, rather than the 500 peacekeepers it is formally entitled to deploy there (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 July 2004). Loshchinin added that Moscow agreed to a Georgian proposal that inspections be conducted in the conflict zone, possibly on a permanent basis, to preclude the renewed penetration of illegal armed groups, Interfax reported.

Meanwhile, the Georgian leadership is continuing to solicit international pressure on Russia to induce the South Ossetian leadership to accept autonomous status for the unrecognized republic within Georgia. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili said in London on 14 July that if the West exerts a "positive influence" on Russia, the crisis in relations with South Ossetia could be resolved within six months. But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stressed on 15 July that the standoff in South Ossetia is not, as Georgian politicians claim, one between Tbilisi and Moscow but between the central Georgian government and the leadership of the would-be breakaway republic.

At the same time, Tbilisi has apparently not yet given up hope that the population of South Ossetia might be induced to turn against its leaders the way that the population of Adjara did. On 9 June, for example, the Georgian daily "Mtavari gazeti" claimed that South Ossetian President Eduard Kokoity has alienated many people by firing any officials he suspected of being amenable to an accommodation with Tbilisi. Similarly on 29 June Interfax quoted Georgian Deputy State Security Minister Givi Ugulava as claiming that "political groups are being created in Tskhinvali who think that the Georgian and Ossetian peoples are bound to live together in a unified state." He predicted that it is "only a matter of time" before the antagonism of other Ossetians towards Georgia is overcome.

Georgian Interior Minister Irakli Okruashvili told journalists on 14 July that he made a clandestine visit to South Ossetia where he met with the population of several predominantly Georgian villages. He said the mood of the local people "is good." Also on 14 July, a spokeswoman for the government of the unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia told Interfax that two busloads of activists from the Georgian youth organization Kmara! (Enough!) arrived in the Georgian-populated village of Eregvi planning to "stage rallies that may lead to a further complication of the situation." Kmara! is the group that spearheaded the protests in Tbilisi last summer and fall that mushroomed into demands for the resignation of then-President Eduard Shevardnadze.

It is, however, questionable how many of South Ossetia's estimated 70,000 Ossetians, almost all of whom have acquired Russian passports, would welcome a return to Georgian hegemony. (Georgians, by contrast, reportedly account for just 20,000 of the unrecognized republic's population.)

Moreover, it is not clear whether the "demilitarization" discussed at the 14 July Joint Control Commission session would entail the withdrawal of the tripartite peacekeeping force that has been deployed in the conflict zone for the past 12 years. Russian First Deputy Foreign Minister Loshchinin argued that "everyone acknowledges" the role that force has played in preventing a recurrence of hostilities, ITAR-TASS and Interfax reported. But the continued presence of the peacekeepers, especially if, as the Georgians have proposed, they are deployed throughout the republic, would preserve the potential for incidents such as those last week that triggered the most recent crisis: the interception by Georgian Interior Ministry troops of a Russian convoy, and the seizure by Ossetians of several dozen Georgian peacekeepers (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 and 8 July 2004).
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