On 13 February, Georgian Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili presented to parliament a new proposal intended to prevent a further exacerbation of tensions.
On 11 October, three weeks after Tskhinvali, capital of the unrecognized Republic of the South Ossetia, was subjected to mortar fire from a Georgian-populated village, the Georgian parliament set a deadline of 10 February for the Russian peacekeeping force deployed in the South Ossetian conflict zone to demonstrate its effectiveness and impartiality. An analogous deadline of 1 July was set for the Russian peacekeepers that have been deployed under the CIS aegis in Abkhazia since mid-1994.
The Georgian parliament accused the Russian peacekeeping forces in both conflict zones of failing to comply with their respective mandates and of turning a blind eye to abductions, attacks on local civilians, smuggling, illicit arms sales, and other crimes. In the case of South Ossetia, the resolution further accused Moscow of providing military assistance to the breakaway republic's leadership.
The resolution 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 to deputies' satisfaction, the Georgian parliament will insist on their withdrawal within two weeks and their replacement by an international peacekeeping force.
Looking For An International Force
In recent days, Georgian politicians -- including parliament speaker Nino Burdjanadze -- informally sounded out Ukraine and Latvia, both Georgian allies, concerning the possibility that they might contribute troops to an international peacekeeping force. While expressing diplomatic support for Georgia, neither country has responded with a firm offer of troops.
The Georgian parliament is accordingly set to vote on 15 February on whether to issue a formal demand for the peacekeepers' withdrawal from South Ossetia. As with most aspects of Georgian-Russian relations, the Georgian parliament has for the past decade taken a more aggressive and militant stance than has the executive. Few observers either in Tbilisi or abroad doubt that parliamentarians will indeed insist on the peacekeepers' withdrawal. If they do, they risk fuelling even further the tensions between Tbilisi and Moscow that have recently been exacerbated by the cutoff of Russian gas supplies last month due to sabotage of the main Russia-Georgia pipeline. Such a demand would also pit the Georgian parliament against at least the more moderate members of the executive branch.
A Split Within The Georgian Government
Givi Targamadze, who heads the parliament's Defense and Security Committee, told Caucasus Press on 6 February that Georgia will resort to force if necessary to expedite the peacekeepers' withdrawal. By contrast, Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli said the Georgian government does not regard the peacekeepers' withdrawal as an end in itself, while Minister for Conflict Resolution Giorgi Khaindrava was quoted by "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 7 February as saying "there are civilized ways of seeking to solve problems, and we do not intend to diverge from them one iota. There is the peacekeepers' mandate and international law, and all our activities will be subordinated to that law. All issues connected with the presence of Russian peacekeepers in Georgia will be addressed by the Georgian president and parliament in accordance with international law."
Any resolution by parliament calling for the Russian contingent's departure is not binding on the Georgian government. And Khaindrava's statement implies the executive would seek ways of expediting the Russian withdrawal that would not risk a new crisis in relations with Moscow. But if the "hawks" within the executive branch -- in particular Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili and Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili, both of whom were born in South Ossetia -- choose to throw their weight behind the parliament, they would present President Mikheil Saakashvili with an unenviable choice. He could back them and the legislature at the risk of challenging Washington, which has urged caution, or scramble to reconcile the positions of all three parties. Saakashvili has not yet openly formulated his position on the upcoming vote, but is likely to touch upon the issue during his annual televised address to the country on 14 February.
As noted above, Washington is eager to avoid a new crisis in Georgian-Russian relations. Addressing the OSCE's Permanent Council in Vienna on 9 February, Georgian Foreign Minister Bezhuashvili called for the fulfillment of earlier agreements by the two sides, including those on demilitarization. He advocated establishing a joint Georgian-South Ossetian police force to maintain order in the conflict zone once the demilitarization process is complete: a proposal that suggested the Georgian government is treating the parliament demand for the Russian peacekeepers' withdrawal as a fait accompli.
But the U.S. permanent representative to the OSCE, Ambassador Julie Finley, implicitly rejected that approach, reasoning that a pullout of the Russian peacekeepers before an alternative force is formed to replace them could further destabilize the situation. Finley called on Georgia to contribute its full complement of forces to maintain the proper balance within the Joint Peace-Keeping Force, which includes Georgian, Russian and Ossetian contingents, "in coordination with existing mechanisms, in full transparency, and in accordance with previous agreements," and on both sides to moderate their militant rhetoric.
In a clear attempt to dissuade parliamentarians from demanding the Russian peacekeepers' withdrawal, Bezhuashvili told them on 13 February that at the meeting scheduled to take place in Vienna on 20-21 February of the Joint Control Commission tasked with monitoring the situation in the South Ossetia conflict zone, Georgia will unveil a detailed demilitarization proposal that would necessitate the continued presence in the conflict zone of the Joint Peacekeeping Force (JPKF), compriseing Georgian and Ossetian contingents as well as Russian peacekeepers. Bezhuashvili further advocated continuing "consultations and negotiations" with Russia, Caucasus Press reported.
That approach, if parliament approves it, would not simply buy time for the Georgian leadership. It would obviate the need to embark on a course of action whose legality may be questionable, insofar as it is by no means clear whether Tbilisi is legally empowered to demand unilaterally the withdrawal of the Russian peacekeeping force from South Ossetia. That force was first deployed, as part of a JPKF, on the basis of an agreement signed in June 1992 by the then Russian and Georgian heads of state, Boris Yeltsin and Eduard Shevardnadze, that established the Joint Control Commission, which comprises Russian, Georgian, South Ossetian and North Ossetian, and OSCE representatives.
JKPF commander Major General Marat Kulakhmetov and Konstantin Kosachyov, who chairs the Russian State Duma's Foreign Affairs Committee, were quoted on 6 and 7 February by Interfax and RIA Novosti, respectively, as arguing that that all four sides must approve the withdrawal of the Russian peacekeeping force. By contrast, Georgian Minister for Conflict Resolution Khaindrava was quoted by Caucasus Press on 7 February as saying the Russian and Georgian presidents should jointly make any decision on pulling out the Russian peacekeeping contingent.