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Georgia: Tensions Again On The Rise In South Ossetia

  • Liz Fuller

http://gdb.rferl.org/8EC6A7B4-3E04-4921-9F2C-F996D888786A_w203.jpg --> http://gdb.rferl.org/8EC6A7B4-3E04-4921-9F2C-F996D888786A_mw800_mh600.jpg The 20 September mortar attack on Tskhinvali, the capital of the unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia, has not only undermined the albeit remote possibility that the leadership of the breakaway republic might be persuaded to accept Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's peace proposal. International reactions to the attack, in which some 10 people were injured, suggest that the United States and the Council of Europe are not convinced by Georgian officials' attempts to offload the entire responsibility for the ongoing stalemate on to Russia, and hope to pressure Tbilisi to adopt a more conciliatory stance towards its two breakaway regions.

The 20 September mortar attack on Tskhinvali, the capital of the unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia, has not only undermined the albeit remote possibility that the leadership of the breakaway republic might be persuaded to accept Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's peace proposal. International reactions to the attack, in which some 10 people were injured, suggest that the United States and the Council of Europe are not convinced by Georgian officials' attempts to offload the entire responsibility for the ongoing stalemate on to Russia, and hope to pressure Tbilisi to adopt a more conciliatory stance towards its two breakaway regions.

According to South Ossetian government officials and Major General Murat Kulakhmetov, commander of the Russian peacekeeping force deployed in the South Ossetian conflict zone, on the evening of 20 September -- the 15th anniversary of South Ossetia's unilateral declaration of its secession from Georgia -- unidentified forces fired three mortar rounds and also opened fire with rifles on Tskhinvali from the Georgian-populated villages of Nikozi and Ergneti.

David Kolbaya, acting commander of the Georgian peacekeeping detachment deployed in the South Ossetian conflict zone, initially told Caucasus Press on 21 September that no shooting took place, while Givi Targamadze, chairman of the Georgian parliament's Defense and Security Committee, said Georgians were not responsible. Georgian Minister for Conflict Resolution Giorgi Khaindrava blamed the shooting on Georgia's "enemies."

Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili, who was in the conflict zone on 20 September and detained for several hours a group of Russian parliamentarians en route for Tskhinvali to participate in the anniversary celebrations, implicated the Russian peacekeepers deployed in the conflict zone, Caucasus Press reported on 21 September. (The Georgian independent daily "Rezonansi" observed on 22 September that Okruashvili was exceeding his authority by detaining the Russian State Duma deputies.)

Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Vyacheslav Sedov rejected Okruashvili's allegation on 22 September. President Saakashvili issued a statement expressing regret at the shooting and calling on the Interior Ministry and the Georgian military contingent in the conflict zone to work with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to determine who was responsible.

Georgian Military Behind Attack?

In a 21 September commentary, Stratfor made the key point that while Georgian villagers in South Ossetia have small arms, they do not have access to mortars or training in how to fire them, and it is "highly unlikely" that South Ossetians or Russians could have carried out a mortar attack without the knowledge and approval of the Georgian peacekeeping force deployed in the conflict zone.

The logical assumption is therefore that the Georgian military was responsible, and on 26 September Caucasus Press reported that the South Ossetian Foreign Ministry has addressed a protest note to the U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi alleging that U.S.-manufactured M-16 rifles were used in the attack. The Georgian Defense Ministry denied the same day that the Georgian armed forces have such weapons.

Despite the initial Georgian denials of involvement, the U.S. State Department in a 21 September statement called on the Georgian government to apprehend and bring to justice those responsible for an "unjustifiable" attack on civilians. The statement further called on "all sides" to "show restraint" and work for a peaceful solution to the conflict, and on the Russian Federation to refrain from providing support to the unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia and to help avoid further provocations. The Russian Foreign Ministry too called on both the conflict parties to "demonstrate restraint and continue the painstaking process of seeking peaceful solutions" to the conflict.

Joint Control Commission Crucial...

In a 21 September statement, Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin further called for the Joint Control Commission (JCC) that monitors the situation in the conflict zone to meet as soon as possible. Even before the shooting incident, Valerii Kenyaikin, who is the Russian co-chairman of the JCC, told journalists that in light of escalating tensions in the conflict zone he considered such a meeting -- tentatively scheduled for late September in Vladikavkaz, the capital of North Ossetia -- imperative.

Kenyaikin also spoke in favor of expediting the long-awaited meeting between South Ossetian President Eduard Kokoity and Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli. (On 14 September, Georgian Minister for Conflict Resolution Khaindrava said that meeting might take place in Tskhinvali on 25 September.)

But on 21 September South Ossetian Interior Minister Murat Djioev said South Ossetia will not attend any further sessions of the JCC (on which both South and North Ossetia are represented together with Russia and Georgia) until Tbilisi apologizes for the previous day's mortar attack. Khaindrava responded later on 21 September that Georgia has nothing to apologize for.

Kenyaikin flew to Tbilisi on 22 September at the request of the Georgian government, and after talks with Khaindrava he was quoted as telling journalists that only a meeting of the JCC could defuse the mounting tensions between Tbilisi and Tskhinvali.

...Or Impossible

But during talks in Tskhinvali on 23 September, the South Ossetian side apparently persuaded Kenyaikin to change his mind: Khaindrava told Caucasus Press on 26 September that "I have been notified by the South Ossetian party that the [JCC] meeting has been postponed indefinitely." ITAR-TASS, however, quoted Khaindrava as adding that Kenyaikin explained that the South and North Ossetian co-chairs, Boris Chochiev and Taymuraz Kusov, argued that there was no point in convening a JCC meeting at this juncture, and that it would be better to wait a while until tensions dissipate somewhat.

If one assumes that it is Moscow that is (literally) calling the shots, it is not clear what caused the 180-degree shift in Kenyaikin's position with regard to convening an emergency session of the JCC. On 23 September, Council of Europe Secretary-General Terry Davis called on both sides in the conflict to lay down their arms and begin peace talks (see (http://www.coe.int/T/E/Com/Press/News/NoteRedac2005/20050923_georgie.asp).

Also on 23 September, Saakashvili accused Moscow of seeking to undermine Georgia's territorial integrity, and demanded a halt to Russian arms supplies to the breakaway region and the recall of Russian citizens who occupy prominent posts in the South Ossetian government. And at a meeting of the National Security Council the same day, Saakashvili ordered the creation of a coordinating council tasked with "forcing" South Ossetia to accept his peace initiative. The council is to be headed by Noghaideli; its other members include both the "dove" Khaindrava, and the twin "hawks," Okruashvili and Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili.

Hawks in Ascendance?

The daily "Akhali taoba" commented on 26 September that the "hawks" carry greater weight with Saakashvili than does Khaindrava, and that they may therefore try to persuade the president to give the green light for a military solution to the conflict. Khaindrava himself has alluded to the polarization of views on South Ossetia within the cabinet; day.az quoted him as saying on 21 September that he will resign if "things continue the way they are heading now and my colleagues do not agree to our joint effective work."

To date, no commentator has explicitly suggested that the "hawks" in Tbilisi may have mounted the mortar attack on Tskhinvali in retaliation for the friendship-and-cooperation agreement signed on 18 September between Kokoity and his North Ossetian counterpart Taymuraz Mamsurov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 September 2005).

In an interview published in "Kommersant-Vlast," No. 38, Znaur Gassiev, who is speaker of the South Ossetian parliament, noted that while South Ossetia has signed similar agreements with previous North Ossetian leaders, the one with Mamsurov is the first that explicitly sets as a goal the unification of the two Ossetian entities within the Russian Federation.

In that same interview, Gassiev discounted the possibility of a new Georgian offensive. He claimed to have been informed by the U.S. ambassador to the OSCE that when Georgia sought last year, in violation of an agreement signed with the United States, to mobilize U.S.-trained troops to bring South Ossetia back under the control of the central Georgian government, "within two hours, Washington ordered the Georgian forces to pull back" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 August 2004).
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