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Georgia: Issue Of Russian Peacekeepers Heats Up

  • Liz Fuller --> (RFE/RL) PRAGUE, July 19, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The Georgian parliament passed on July 18 by 144 votes (of a total of 235, and in the absence of opposition deputies) a resolution calling on the government to take immediate measures to expedite the withdrawal from South Ossetia and Abkhazia of the Russian peacekeeping contingents that have been deployed there since 1992 and 1994 respectively.

At the same time, it tasks the government with securing pledges from the international community to deploy alternative, international peacekeeping contingents and with convincing world public opinion of Tbilisi's continuing commitment to resolving its conflicts with Abkhazia and South Ossetia by exclusively peaceful means. On that level, the resolution could be construed as proposing that the Georgian government pass the buck and abdicate to an already overstretched international community responsibility for protecting the lives of its own citizens.

Russian politicians, including Konstantin Kosachyov, chairman of the State Duma's Foreign Affairs Committee, were swift to point out that the parliament resolution is not legally binding. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili for his part told journalists on July 18 after the vote that the Georgian leadership will decide on its further steps only after his expected meeting later this week with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Moscow.

Fuel On The Fire

Nonetheless, the July 18 resolution, which is the logical culmination of an ultimatum the parliament issued to the Russian peacekeepers in October 2005, will inevitably exacerbate the already tense relations between Tbilisi and Moscow. The Russian Foreign Ministry, in a statement posted to its website on July 18, termed the resolution "a provocative step directed at fuelling tension, undermining the existing format for negotiations, and demolishing the legal foundations for resolving the Georgian-Abkhaz and Georgian-Ossetian conflicts peacefully."

The leaders of the unrecognized republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia will almost certainly construe the Georgian parliament's demands as evidence that the successive draft peace proposals unveiled over the past two years by the Georgian leadership are not worth the paper on which they are written. The resolution is also likely to fuel fears in South Ossetia that a new Georgian offensive may be imminent with the aim of bringing that breakaway region back under the control of the central Georgian government.

Russian peacekeepers in Abkhazia (file photo)

On October 11, the Georgian parliament approved a resolution setting deadlines of February 10, 2006, and June 15, 2006, respectively, for the Russian peacekeeping forces deployed in the South Ossetian and Abkhaz conflict zones to demonstrate they are complying with the terms of their respective mandates. That earlier resolution warned that in the event that the Russian peacekeepers continued to turn a blind eye to killings, abductions, smuggling, and other crimes, the Georgian parliament would insist on their withdrawal and replacement by an international peacekeeping force.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov immediately dismissed the October resolution as politically rather than militarily motivated. Lavrov argued that it would be more appropriate to try to rebuild trust between Georgia and the leaders of its breakaway republics, and he stressed that Russia was trying, together with the OSCE and the UN, to promote a political settlement of the two conflicts.

Different Peacekeepers

There are marked differences between the two peacekeeping operations. The 500 Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia are part of a force that also includes equal numbers of Georgian and Ossetian servicemen. That force was deployed in 1992 following the signing of an agreement between the then leaders of Georgia and Russia, Eduard Shevardnadze and Boris Yeltsin, that ended two years of sporadic low-level hostilities between informal Georgian and South Ossetian militias. The different national contingents patrol the conflict zone separately, however, hence the Georgian perception that the Russians selectively extend protection to Ossetian civilians and to Ossetian criminal clans engaged in smuggling, while ignoring Ossetian reprisals against the unrecognized republic's minority Georgian population.

From that angle, the question arises why, if Georgia's overriding concern is the security of the Georgian population of South Ossetia, rather than simply scoring political points, the Georgian authorities have not long ago raised with the OSCE the possibility of introducing mixed-nationality patrols? There is a recent precedent for doing so: following the fall of Grozny to the Chechen resistance forces in August 1996, Russian military police and Chechen militants patrolled the city jointly.

Russian peacekeeper outside Tskhinvali (AFP file photo)

Whether Georgia is legally empowered unilaterally to demand the withdrawal of the Russian peacekeepers from South Ossetia is a matter of debate. In the event that Moscow agreed to their withdrawal, it should not prove too difficult for the international community to find a contingent of 500 men to replace them. Such acquiescence is, however, unlikely, given that up to 90 percent of the South Ossetian population have acquired Russian passports, and thus could argue they are entitled to Russian "protection."

In Abkhazia, by contrast, the Russian peacekeeping force is far larger (1,600 men), and is not complemented by contingents from any other country. (Ukraine has offered to send peacekeepers to Abkhazia under the aegis of the UN, but not of the CIS.) Even though UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's outgoing special representative for Abkhazia, Ambassador Heidi Tagliavini, last month lauded the Russian presence, together with that of the unarmed UN Observer Mission in Georgia, as "the sole deterrent to prevent the situation spiraling out of control," Tbilisi repeatedly accuses the Russian peacekeepers of conniving with Abkhaz criminal gangs and of failing to protect Georgians who have returned to the homes in Abkhazia's southernmost Gali Raion from which they fled during the fighting of 1992-93.

Good Cop, Bad Cop

There is, moreover, a domestic political component to the Georgian parliament's ultimatum. The Georgian parliament has traditionally adopted a far more hostile and aggressive attitude toward Russia than has the executive branch, calling periodically for the closure of the Russian military bases in Georgia (now under way), or for Georgia's withdrawal from the CIS. Former President Shevardnadze traditionally played "good cop" to the legislature's "bad cop," seeking to reassure Moscow. But Shevardnadze's successor Saakashvili has sent mixed signals, alternately seeking to reassure Russia's leaders of his desire for "normal, friendly " relations and warning that his country is not to be intimidated.

As for the leaders of the two unrecognized republics, the Abkhaz have repeatedly warned that they will not agree to the Russian peacekeepers' withdrawal, which they claim Georgia only seeks in order to facilitate a new war. Abkhaz President Sergei Bagapsh warned last month that if the Russian forces do leave, the Abkhaz will mine, and deploy their armed forces along, the border separating Abkhazia from the rest of Georgia. And in recent days, civilian groups in several North Caucasus republics have declared their readiness to send armed volunteers to fight alongside the Abkhaz -- as they did in 1992 -- in the event of a new Georgian offensive.

Abkhazia, however, appears less vulnerable at this juncture than does South Ossetia, in light of repeated vows by Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili, who was born in the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, to bring the breakaway republic back under Tbilisi's control by the end of this year. An offensive in August 2004 by Okruashvili, then interior minister, intended to accomplish precisely that ended in failure, with up to two dozen Georgian Interior Ministry troops killed. Whether the Georgian battalions that have undergone U.S. training in the meantime will prove more effective remains to be seen.

Any Georgian aggression would, however, almost certainly trigger a military response by Russia. That may be why Saakashvili wants to defer an official response to the parliament's demand until after his talks with President Putin later this week, presumably in the hope of wresting from Putin some major concession (such as lifting the ban imposed in March on the import of Georgian wine into Russia) that he could then brandish before the parliament. Should Putin prove unyielding, however, Saakashvili is likely to find himself under increasing pressure from both parliament and a military eager to demonstrate its enhanced combat ability.
Universal Principles?

President Putin at a Kremlin meeting in April (epa)

PUTIN SPEAKS OUT: During a January press conference, Russian President Vladimir Putin said there is a need for "universal principles" to settle "frozen" conflicts in the CIS. His comments came against the background of impending talks on the future status of Kosovo, which many predict will grant it a form of "conditional independence" from Serbia and Montenegro. As an ally of Serbia, Moscow has consistently opposed the idea of Kosovar independence. Putin's remarks suggest he may be shifting his position, but only if the principles applied to Kosovo are also applied to frozen conflicts in the former Soviet Union. If Kosovo can be granted full independence, he asked, why should we deny the same to Abkhazia and South Ossetia? (more)


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