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Georgia: Latest Peace Initiative For South Ossetia Unveiled

(RFE/RL) Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli on 27 October presented to the OSCE's Permanent Council in Vienna the most recent version of President Mikheil Saakashvili's proposals for resolving the South Ossetian conflict. Saakashvili unveiled his original peace plan to the UN General Assembly in September 2004. Revised versions were subsequently outlined at the spring session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in January 2005, and at an international conference in Adjara in July 2005.

Like the earlier versions, the most recent Georgian peace proposal, which the U.S. State Department endorsed in a written statement on 28 October, envisages granting South Ossetia "broad autonomy" within Georgia. But it contains new proposals regarding the actual peace process -- specifically, drawing the United States, the EU, and the OSCE into the search for a political settlement to the conflict alongside Russia.

It also advocates demilitarization of the conflict zone and imposing strict border controls at the Roki tunnel linking South Ossetia with the Russian Federation. Both moves would undercut Russia's ability to channel support to the South Ossetian leadership and thus use the conflict as leverage against Georgia.

In addition, while Saakashvili's January peace plan provided for a three-year transition period, the updated version envisages resolving the conflict by 2007.

Russian Resolution Efforts

For the past 13 years, since the then-presidents of Russia and Georgia, Boris Yeltsin and Eduard Shevardnadze, signed an agreement in Dagomys in July 1992 on ending sporadic fighting between Georgian and South Ossetian irregular troops, Russia has played key role both in maintaining a tenuous peace in the conflict zone and in promoting the search for a political settlement.

The primary vehicle for reaching an agreement is the so-called Joint Control Commission (JCC) on which Russia, Georgia, and the governments of both North Ossetia and South Ossetia are represented. The JCC also regularly monitors the situation in the conflict zone, where Russia, Georgia, and South Ossetia have each deployed 500 peacekeeping troops.

Georgian Discontent

Georgia has, however, repeatedly accused Moscow of abusing its internationally recognized role as peacekeeper and of obstructing a political solution to the conflict in a bid to preserve its rapidly dwindling influence in the South Caucasus. Specifically, Georgian officials have accused Russia of channeling financial and military aid to the South Ossetian leadership, and of abetting large-scale smuggling that helped keep the unrecognized republic afloat. The officials also condemn the practice of distributing Russian passports to any Ossetians who apply for them.

Georgia has repeatedly accused Moscow of abusing its internationally recognized role as peacekeeper and of obstructing a political solution to the conflict in a bid to preserve its rapidly dwindling influence in the South Caucasus.

Latent Georgian anger over the Russian peacekeepers' failure to comply strictly with their mandate erupted in late September after the South Ossetian leadership displayed tanks and other armored vehicles during a parade on 20 September to mark the 15th anniversary of a referendum in which the region's Ossetian residents voted to secede from Georgia.

Tbilisi branded the presence of that heavy armor a clear violation of earlier demilitarization agreements. (Several mortar rounds were fired on the 20 September parade from Georgian populated villages, injuring 10 people; the perpetrators have not yet been identified or brought to justice.)

Resolution Raises Russian Ire

Then, on 11 October, the Georgian parliament adopted a resolution criticizing the perceived failure of the Russian peacekeeping forces in both Abkhazia and South Ossetia to comply with their respective mandates. That resolution accused the Russian peacekeepers in both conflict zones of turning a blind eye to abductions of and violent attacks on local civilians, smuggling, illicit arms sales, and other crimes, and, in the case of South Ossetia, of providing military assistance to the breakaway republic's leadership.

It set deadlines of 10 February 2006 and 1 July 2006, respectively, for the Russian peacekeepers deployed in the South Ossetian and Abkhaz conflict zones to demonstrate they are complying with the terms of their respective mandates and that their continued presence in the conflict zones is essential. In the event that they fail to do so, the Georgian parliament will insist on their withdrawal within two weeks and their replacement by an international peacekeeping force.

The Russian Foreign Ministry responded on 12 October to that ultimatum with a harshly worded statement decrying the Georgian resolution as "provocative," "irresponsible," aimed at undermining peaceful negotiations, and as an attempt to offload responsibility for the existing tensions. It stressed that over the past two years Russia, together with its foreign partners, has made a considerable effort to preserve a "fragile balance" that, it alleged, has been constantly endangered by both militant statements on the part of unnamed Georgian politicians and "direct attempts to resolve the problems of Abkhazia and South Ossetia with the help of military force" -- an allusion to the ill-fated Georgian military action in South Ossetia last August. In that context, the Russian Foreign Ministry stressed that the international community considers the recourse to military might unacceptable.

Sparring Over The JCC

At a meeting of the JCC in Moscow last week, Georgian Minister for Conflict Resolution Giorgi Khaindrava argued that the JCC is ineffective, as the measures on which it agrees are rarely implemented. He therefore advocated expanding the format of talks on resolving the conflict to give a greater role to the OSCE and the EU, but both Russian First Deputy Foreign Minister Valerii Loshchinin and Ambassador Valerii Kenyaikin, who heads Russia's delegation to the talks, argued against any such changes. Both Kenyaikin and South Ossetian delegation head Boris Chochiev termed the JCC and the Russian-Georgian-Ossetian peacekeeping force currently deployed in the conflict zone "the only effective and promising mechanisms" for resolving the conflict. The meeting participants agreed only to meet again in mid-November in Ljubljana at the invitation of OSCE Chairman in Office and Slovenian Foreign Minister Dmitrij Rupel.

While at one level Saakashvili's revised peace plan for South Ossetia is simply the latest chapter in an ongoing effort to persuade the international community to take Georgia's side against Russia in expediting a solution to the conflict that would restore Georgia's control over its breakaway former autonomies, it can also be seen as an attempt to preempt either further pressure on the government on the part of the Georgian parliament, or a deterioration of relations with Russia.
A military engagement in South Ossetia -- whether planned or spontaneous -- could jeopardize Georgia's hopes of admission to NATO by 2009.

True, the 11 October parliament resolution is not legally binding on the executive; but in the wake of the muscle-flexing by the parliament that precipitated the resignation two weeks ago of Foreign Minister Salome Zourabichvili, the executive may well wish to avoid another standoff with the legislature. And a demand by parliament that the Georgian government insist on the Russian peacekeepers' withdrawal by mid-2006 would inevitably trigger a further crisis in relations with Moscow. On 31 October, Georgian Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili told journalists that if an agreement is reached on amending the format of the peace process, the Georgian government will ask the parliament to revise its ultimatum on the terms for the Russian peacekeepers' withdrawal, Caucasus Press reported.

There is one further factor that may be of relevance to the new Georgian campaign to expedite a solution to the South Ossetian conflict, and that is the risk that a military engagement in South Ossetia -- whether planned or spontaneous -- could, if it ended in humiliation for Georgia, jeopardize the Georgian leadership's hopes of admission to NATO by 2009. Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili was born in Tskhinvali and is believed to have been the moving force behind the botched incursion into South Ossetia in August 2004. (Reports that he personally gave the orders for the 20 September mortar attack on Tskhinvali have not been confirmed.) Okruashvili has been subjected to criticism over allegations that he has personally authorized the spending of huge sums from the ministry's budget for purposes that remain unclear. Summoned to parliament last week to respond to those accusations, he insisted that all defense spending is "transparent," and that legislators can obtain details on request, Caucasus Press reported on 27 October.

The authority of the Defense Ministry has been damaged by two other recent developments. Some 200 servicemen from the elite commandos battalion resigned their commissions last month. And Saakashvili's chief military adviser, former Chief of General Staff General Vakhtang Kapanadze, stepped down last week in the wake of a scandal over the procurement from Ukraine of 40 armored personnel carriers that proved to be unoperational when first deployed during maneuvers. Three Defense Ministry officials have been arrested in connection with that incident.

Delay Tactic

Russia has already signaled that it plans to do all in its power to delay, if not prevent, a swift solution to the South Ossetian conflict. Russian Ambassador to Tbilisi Vladimir Chkhikvishvili told journalists on 31 October that it is "impossible" to resolve the conflict by 2007 as Saakashvili apparently hopes to do; Chkhikvishvili adduced the problem of Cyprus, which has lasted for three decades. Three days earlier, on 28 October, a so-called congress of Russian citizens of South Ossetia -- presumably those 90 percent of the republic's population who have availed themselves of the offer of Russian passports -- adopted an appeal to Russian President Vladimir Putin to take "active measures" to prevent a new military aggression by Georgia against South Ossetia and to consider granting formal recognition to the Republic of South Ossetia as a preliminary to incorporating it into the Russian Federation and uniting it with North Ossetia, Caucasus Press reported.