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Who's To Blame In South Ossetia?

Georgian troops in a tank at an unnamed location near Tskhinvali

Georgian troops in a tank at an unnamed location near Tskhinvali

Heavy fighting erupted late on August 7 in the Georgian breakaway region of South Ossetia, with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili calling for the full mobilization of the country's armed forces. Russia has threatened to retaliate amid growing fears of a full-scale war.

RFE/RL's Russian Service discussed the situation with Moscow-based columnist and specialist on former Soviet countries Vadim Dubnov; Koba Liklikadze, a political scientist and a commentator for RFE/RL's Georgian Service; Ivan Sukhov, a journalist specializing in the North Caucasus; and political scientist Kosta Kochiyev, head of the South Ossetian NGO Law is Higher than the Authorities.

RFE/RL: Who is to blame for the rising tensions in South Ossetia?

Vadim Dubnov: Both sides [Georgia and South Ossetia] have reason to be interested in maintaining the tensions. Tskhinvali needs to maintain the unstable situation in order to convince Moscow that distancing itself would be fraught with danger. Tbilisi wants to prove that the framework of the Joint Control Commission has turned into a complete farce. Everything that is happening confirms this.

Therefore they are both achieving their goals -- and both are being quite cunning at it, since they are counting on the fact that Moscow will not allow a full-blown war to erupt. But no, that calculation may prove to be mistaken because Moscow is also not in a position to deal with either side because now a confrontation is developing between the South Ossetia peacekeepers and Moscow that had not been previously observed in this form.

RFE/RL: It seems that Tbilisi can't make up its mind whether to launch a full-scale military operation to reintegrate South Ossetia by force.

Dubnov: I don't think Georgia has any such plans. I am still somewhat optimistic and think that both sides will pull back. Neither Tbilisi nor Tskhinvali want a real war.

The volunteers who are arriving in South Ossetia from the Russian republic of North Ossetia and from Russia -- is this a serious force?

Dubnov: Various people are arriving from North Ossetia, including some with real military experience who went through [the fighting in] 1992 and other events. But I don't think that they will really provide much help. It is more of an act of solidarity.


RFE/RL: Are they speaking in Tbilisi about a large-scale military operation to reintegrate South Ossetia with the rest of the country or is such a plan being denied?

Koba Liklikadze: No, they are not talking about such a thing. Temur Iakobashvili, the minister for reintegration, said that there will not be a large-scale military operation and that Georgia will respond to any provocation adequately, but with restraint. The Georgian authorities say there will be no large-scale operation.

In fact, it is hard to imagine a major military operation against Tskhinvali because it is a very small, very narrow gorge and a tiny city. Nonetheless, I do not think the matter will get to the level of military action. For now things will remain in the realm of a diplomatic war.

RFE/RL: What is the political sense of what is happening? Why is the situation coming to a head?

Liklikadze: The official opinion is that everything began after the NATO summit in Bucharest [in April], when the door was opened to Georgia and Ukraine -- that is, it was said that they can become members of NATO. I think that this is a diplomatic war, and part of it is the ongoing military operation.


RFE/RL: Who is winning from the current escalation of tensions in South Ossetia?

Ivan Sukhov: This is a defeat for everyone interested in the civilized resolution of the situation in South Ossetia -- for Georgia, for Russia, and for South Ossetia itself.

At first glance it would seem to be a public-relations loss for Georgia, which until the very last moment was assuring everyone that it was not preparing a military action, that it would only consider such a thing as a last resort. It turns out that the escalation began almost simultaneously with [Georgian President] Mikheil Saakashvili's television address in which he urged all parties to forswear violence. Now the Georgians are saying, naturally, that their action was a response to an attack by the South Ossetians on Georgian enclaves north of Tskhinvali. But, that doesn't really mean much.

We can only hope that somehow contact will be restored between the presidents of Russia and Georgia, because -- given the situation -- Dmitry Medvedev's current vacation seems like some sort of professional incompetence [Editor's note: Medvedev appeared with a harsh public statement during the second half of the day.]

RFE/RL: What role can Russia play now, considering that Moscow has been facilitating the rising tensions in the reason by maintaining direct contacts with South Ossetia?

Sukhov: I think that, as before, there are two points of view within Moscow about how Russia should proceed in this conflict. Judging by the events of last night, the point of view of the hawks is prevailing. They are even willing to carry out air strikes on the territory of Georgia, if you believe official Georgian statements.

RFE/RL: The UN Security Council has not adopted a resolution on the situation. What does this mean? Can the position of the international community play a role in the current circumstances?

Sukhov: I think that everyone will avoid commenting at least for the next few hours because it is still unclear what this military phase of the conflict will produce. I think that ultimately Russia and its Western partners will try to sit both sides down at the negotiating table and roll the situation back.

Something similar happened in 2004, but, of course, there wasn't intense fighting at that time. In this regard, the situation has moved to an unprecedented level. You can even say that war has resumed at a level that was characteristic of the beginning of the Georgia-South Ossetia conflict in 1989-92. We can only hope now that it will be possible to compel both sides to negotiate.

I think that this will have an impact on the Georgian president's relations with his Western patrons. Because even though he managed to emerge from a political crisis last winter connected with the preterm legislative and presidential elections, now he has, of course, taken a position that is awkward for the West, since Georgia has consistently positioned itself as a principled opponent of military action. Even if the Georgian actions were provoked by the South Ossetians, this is a serious political mistake.


RFE/RL: Who is to blame for the situation in South Ossetia?

Kosta Kochiyev: This is what Georgia has been striving for for a long time. They have been doing everything to achieve this. Their policies for several centuries boil down to the policy of a mono-ethnic state and pushing Ossetians out of Ossetia.

RFE/RL: Do you think there are no political means for regulating this conflict?

Kochiyev: There is a political way to regulate this conflict. It is an international court for the crimes against humanity that Georgia has committed beginning in the 1920s and continuing until the present day.
Factbox: South Ossetia

Status: The region broke away from Georgia in a 1991-92 war. A peacekeeping force with 500 peacekeepers each from Russia, Georgia, and North Ossetia monitors a 1992 truce.

Population: Approximately 70,000 (according to the 1989 census, about two-thirds Ossetian, one-third Georgian)

Capital: Tskhinvali

Languages: Ossetian, Georgian, Russian

Religion: Orthodox Christianity

South Ossetia: Timeline Of A Crisis