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Caucasus Report: September 30, 2005

30 September 2005, Volume 8, Number 34

TENSIONS AGAIN ON THE RISE IN SOUTH OSSETIA. 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 unconvinced 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 toward 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, in 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 OSCE to determine who was responsible.

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 were 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.

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 Joint Control Commission (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 on 22 September to Tbilisi 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. 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-chairmen, 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 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 ( 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. 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; 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."

The five-hour talks in Moscow on 28 September between Khaindrava and Bezhuashvili on the one hand and Russian First Deputy Foreign Minister Valerii Loshchinin and Security Council secretary Igor Ivanov on the other provided a further indication of the gulf between the doves and hawks. While Bezhuashvili was quoted as describing those talks as constructive and conducive to an improvement in bilateral relations, Khaindrava said he sees no future for the Russian peacekeeping operation, Caucasus Press reported on 28 September.

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). (Liz Fuller)

RUSSIAN OFICIAL DOUBTS ARMENIA RIPE FOR REVOLUTION. Visiting Yerevan on 28 September, former Russian Interior Minister Vladimir Rushailo, who is currently executive secretary of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), expressed confidence that Armenia will not see the kind of popular uprising that swept away the ruling regimes in other former Soviet republics.

Rushailo said the situation in Armenia is now more stable than it was in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan, where fraudulent elections triggered bloodless revolutions hailed by the West.

"I think the situation in Armenia is stable," Rushailo told RFE/RL. "Compared to other CIS countries, Armenia is in good shape, especially in terms of economic growth."

Russia watched with alarm the wave of revolutions that brought to power younger and pro-Western leaders in what it still considers its zone of influence. Russian leaders say the regime changes were part of a Western conspiracy to further undermine its influence in the former Soviet. Hence their disapproval of the Armenian opposition's threats to stage a similar revolt in Armenia.

Rushailo's comments also reflect the position of Armenia's leadership, and President Robert Kocharian in particular. Kocharian has repeatedly stated that his opponents will fail to unseat him because he has a stronger security apparatus and a better economic track record than the deposed ex-Soviet rulers had.

Rushailo spoke to RFE/RL after holding talks with Kocharian and Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian. He also met on 28 September with Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian, Noyan Tapan reported. He was to preside over a meeting of CIS interior ministers that opened in Yerevan on 29 September. (Ruzanna Stepanian)

GEORGIAN PREMIER REASSURES ARMENIA OVER RAIL LINK WITH TURKEY. Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli sought on 29 September to allay Yerevan's concerns about plans for the construction of a new railway that would run from Georgia to Turkey and bypass Armenia. Noghaideli said that while pressing ahead with the $400 million project, Tbilisi will try to convince Ankara to reactivate the currently sole railway linking Turkey to Armenia and the rest of the South Caucasus.

"Georgia will certainly take part in all economic projects that are beneficial for Georgia," Noghaideli said after a meeting in Yerevan of the Georgian-Armenian intergovernmental commission on economic cooperation. "At the same time, we will do our best to contribute to the development of alternative transport routes for Armenia and the reactivation of the Kars-Gyumri railway in particular. But as you can understand, that does not depend only on us."

Armenia fears that the planned Tbilisi-Akhalkalaki-Kars rail link will dash its hopes to become a regional transport hub after a resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and the normalization of its relations with Turkey. An Armenian government statement said Prime Minister Markarian raised the issue during a tete-a-tete meeting with Noghaideli that was followed by a session of the bilateral commission. But it gave no details.

The commission co-chaired by the two premiers discussed a broad range of issues of mutual interest. "Agreement was reached almost all outstanding issues left over from the previous meeting of the commission last year," said Markarian. "This is the first time that the commission found solutions to all issues on the agenda of its meeting," agreed Noghaideli.

The two sides signed agreements rescheduling the repayment of Georgia's $20 million debt to Armenia and facilitating transport communication between the two neighboring countries. That includes a complete abolition of road taxes levied from personal and commercial vehicles entering each other's territory. The two governments also agreed to enhance the existing rail and bus traffic between Armenia and Georgia and look into the possibility of restoring regular flights between their capitals.

The socioeconomic situation in Georgia's Armenian-populated region of Djavakheti was again on the agenda of the commission's meeting. On 24 September, ethnic Armenian organizations in the impoverished area demanded that the government in Tbilisi grant Djavakheti autonomous status (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 September 2005). But Noghaideli ruled out that possibility. "There will be only three autonomies in Georgia: the Ajarian, Abkhazian and South Ossetian," he told a joint news conference with Markarian. The Armenian authorities have never backed the Djavakheti Armenians' demands for autonomy, offering instead to help to alleviate the region's problems. Noghaideli and Markarian toured Djavakheti in July, pledging joint efforts to improve the difficult socioeconomic situation there (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 July 2005). In particular, the administration of President Mikhail Saakashvili has pledged to invest a large part of additional multimillion-dollar assistance provided to Georgia by the United States in the local infrastructure. Saakashvili has also said that local farmers will be the primary suppliers of agricultural produce to the Georgian Army. (Atom Markarian)

QUOTATION OF THE WEEK. "I fear that by 2007 Russia and her president will have landed themselves with a new [Chechen separatist President Djokhar] Dudaev in the person of [Chechen First Deputy Prime Minister] Ramzan [Kadyrov]." -- Agency for Applied and Regional Politics Director Valerii Khomyakov, quoted by "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 29 September.