RFE/RL's Caucasus expert Liz Fuller answers questions on Russia's interest in South Ossetia and recent events that have caused the conflict to boil over.
Q. Can you give us a general on the current situation in South Ossetia and Abkhazia?
A. The situation is still unclear, as it has been over the past couple of days. Certainly, both the Russians and the Georgians have confirmed that most Georgian forces have left Tskhinvali and are retreating southwards. Regnum.ru claims that the Georgians have left some snipers in Tskhinvali. That, of course, cannot be confirmed. As for the Kodori Gorge, it seems there have been further artillery bombardments late yesterday (August 9) and again today. Whether these were Russian or Abkhaz warplanes isn't clear. The Abkhaz army has apparently sent some troops into Gali Raion, which borders on Zugdidi Raion in Georgia, but I have not seen that there are Abkhaz forces actually in Kodori. The big, or the most important and threatening development in terms of hostilities is, of course, the ongoing Russian bombardment of Georgian cities outside Ossetia.
Q. Will Georgia's reported withdrawal from South Ossetia open the door for negotiations on ending the fighting?
A. Yesterday (August 9), Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin set one condition for setting talks, and that condition was the withdrawal of Georgian forces from Tskhinvali. He's been quoted today as setting a second condition for sitting down at the negotiating table, that condition being that Georgia should now sign a pledge that it will not again use force. This suggests that the Russians are holding out as long as they can before they do actually agree to sit down and negotiate. The big questions, of course, are: What do you start discussing and in what order -- that's the first one. And the second one is: Who actually sits at the negotiating table. You know, A, as a mediator, and B, as a conflict party.
Obviously the most logical and most urgent first thing to discuss would be the signing of a formal cease-fire, and possibly also a pledge not to resume hostilities. The question is which side would consider what country or party to be the most appropriate negotiator to defend its interests, if you are discussing that. And, of course, can you discuss that without having Russia at the negotiating table. And, of course, who acts as the mediator? Should it be the OSCE? Should it be the EU? What role for Washington? Then there is the question of who represents what conflict side and, specifically, who represents the population of South Ossetia in these talks? The de facto President [of South Ossetia, Eduard] Kokoity has not come out with any formal statement that I have seen for at least 24 hours and possibly longer. It's not clear where he is -- presumably in Russia, possibly in North Ossetia -- but if he doesn't speak on behalf of the South Ossetian population, then who does? I mean, it would not be appropriate, or the South Ossetians themselves would consider it inappropriate for the pro-Georgian head of the provisional government [Dmitry] Sanakoyev to speak on their behalf, seeing as they never voted for him and they don't support him. But, clearly, if there are going to be talks, both on a cease-fire and on some sort of political regulation of the conflict, then someone has to represent the South Ossetian side and it has to be someone they can trust.
Q. Both sides have been accusing the other of "genocide" and "ethnic cleansing." Is there any merit to these claims?
A. I think that both these terms are being used rather incautiously, and genocide is not an appropriate or accurate term for either side to use in this conflict. Certainly there has been use of indiscriminate force, but the very fact that it has been indiscriminate -- the Georgian artillery bombardment of Tskhinvali and the Russian bombing of Gori -- that sort of bombing is indiscriminate and does not target only South Ossetians in the case of Tskhinvali or only Georgians in the case of Gori. There have been alarming reports of the use of indiscriminate force, both in terms of the Russian use of heavy bombers and the initial reports that Tskhinvali was subjected to bombardment using 'Grad' missiles, which are about the most damaging form of heavy artillery you can use against a civilian town. Human Rights Watch came out already, I think, on Friday (August 8) with a warning that both conflict sides should very careful to refrain from using disproportionately punitive weaponry in this conflict.
Q. What will be the impact of Abkhazia's decision to begin military operations against Georgian troops in the Kodori Gorge?
A. I'm not sure whether they're planning to retake the Kodori Gorge, but they've obviously decided that this is the most useful strategic thing they can do to strengthen their own position, and this is something they can do in line with their cooperation agreement with South Ossetia to make life that much more difficult for the Georgian military. As I understand it, Abkhaz warplanes have bombed, I think, infrastructure rather than the position of Georgian Interior Ministry troops, although that is not altogether clear to me. But certainly, anything that the Abkhaz can do to make the operations of Georgian troops in Kodori more difficult is going to be of benefit to the Abkhaz in the long term.
Q: With the Russian military now saying that it controls the South Ossetian capital, what do you expect Moscow's next step to be?
A: I would say that, given that the reports of a massive Russian troop presence in South Ossetia with paratroopers and other troops being flown in from Moscow, from Ivanovo -- not just from Mozdok in the North Caucasus but from other bases in Russia. I would say that for the Russians, the logical thing for them to do now is simply to just hunker down. They don't have any strategic or political reason to advance beyond the border of South Ossetia, if, as I said, the entire rationale for this exercise is to protect Ossetians who have Russian passports. The Russians would be crossing a very dangerous red line if they advanced beyond the border between South Ossetia and the rest of Georgia.
Q: What does the arrival of Russian troops to the scene mean?
A: It's difficult to say what it means, because the reports on the ground are fragmentary and contradictory. The Georgian TV station Rustavi-2 announced that the Georgian side declared a cease-fire for three hours this afternoon [August 8], from 1500 to 1800 local time, to allow residents to leave Tskhinvali. But the only road open to them that would not be shelled was the road that led south to Georgian territory, and I doubt that many of them would have availed themselves to that offer.
Apparently, North Ossetia has dispatched busses to evacuate Tskhinvali residents north to North Ossetia. This would suggest that, while the Georgians may control the very south of South Ossetia, they don't control most of the north. Or, at least, not the key road north. It's also not clear whether the cease-fire is still holding, or whether there is street fighting. The South Ossetian president apparently has given the Georgians an ultimatum to leave Tskhinvali, but it's not clear exactly how strong -- even with Russian backing -- are."
Q: Can you comment on reports that mercenaries have entered South Ossetia from Russia via the Roki Tunnel to join the fighting?
A: It's not clear exactly how many mercenaries -- ethnic Ossetians from North Ossetia, or mercenaries from other North Caucasus republics -- have actually entered South Ossetia. Or how many of them [there are]; how well they are armed; how well they are trained.
It's certainly not out of the question. Sympathy with the South Ossetians is very high in other parts of the North Caucasus. There was a meeting in northern Daghestan, close to the border with Chechnya today -- 1,000 people saying, "we're ready to go and help the Ossetians, just give us the word and we'll be on our way." So, if the conflict continues over a period of days or weeks, we may very well see spontaneous volunteer forces trying to make their way to the conflict to help out. But with nobody coordinating this it would be very difficult to predict in advance what sort of a help they could provide.
Q: What changed in the past few weeks that the long-simmering dispute between Georgia and its breakaway province of South Ossetia would boil over?
A: What appears to have happened, and this is extremely difficult to substantiate, is that tensions have emerged within the South Ossetian leadership -- the de facto president, Eduard Kokoity, appears to be under pressure and it seems as if he is acting as a loose cannon. I mean, up to a point, we've seen the sort of escalation that generally happens during the summer -- the exchanges of artillery fire -- but in July there were reports that both sides were digging new fortifications, and in early July also the Georgian forces displaced a Russian peacekeeping post on Sarabuk, which is one of the two strategic heights commanding Tskhinvali, and this sent off danger signals and presumably led the south Ossetians to think they were facing a new offensive, and Kokoity may have decided that the best form of defense was attack, and that if he escalated attacks against Georgian positions then Russia would step in and help strengthen his own position.
Q: Can you explain Russia's interests in the region, and its role in the conflict and its resolution?
A: Russia, to my mind, has for years -- if not ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union -- seen the South Ossetian conflict as a means of exerting leverage on Georgia. Initially it was the Russian military who used the South Ossetian conflict as a way to hit back at [former Georgian President Eduard] Shevardnadze, because they held Shevardnadze responsible for the collapse of the Soviet Union. More recently -- since Georgia unequivocally said it wants to become a member of NATO -- by fueling the conflict and demonstrating that the Georgian armed forces aren't capable of controlling the entire territory, Russia has been tacitly trying to demonstrate that Georgia isn't fit to become a NATO member.
As part of this ongoing undermining of Georgian authority in South Ossetia, the Russians have offered Russian passports to the local Ossetian population who otherwise would be trapped within that small enclave and not able to travel anywhere. A cynic would say that having Russian passport and being considered as a hypothetical citizen of the Russian Federation doesn't really guarantee you any kind of safety, or any kinds of rights.
Q: Can you tell us a bit about the peacekeeping operations that are in place in South Ossetia?
A: This was written into the agreement that Yeltsin and Shevardnadze signed in 1992. It envisaged that Russia, North Ossetia, South Ossetia and Georgia would each contribute several hundred men. And, I think, there was written into this agreement some sort of supervisory or monitoring role for the OSCE because the OSCE since then has had a military mission in Tskhinvali looking at the military situation on the ground.
It worked. I mean, the peacekeeping format that has existed since 1992 has worked except for the abortive operation in 2004 and, occasionally, exchanges of machine-gun fire or artillery fire since then. But, again, the Georgians in their single-minded efforts to elbow the Russians out have been lobbying over the past six-12 months to have both the peacekeeping force in South Ossetia and the Russian peacekeeping force in Abkhazia replaced with an international force -- possibly under the auspices of the EU -- some sort of force that Russia would not be able to dominate or manipulate. Possibly a token role for Russia, but not a decisive one.