Over the past four weeks, while international mediators have intensified their efforts to resolve the Abkhaz conflict, at least eight people have been killed in artillery exchanges in Georgia's unrecognized republic of South Ossetia.
Tbilisi has rejected calls both for talks in Moscow on preventing a further escalation of violence, and for an increase in the number of Russian and Ossetian peacekeepers deployed in the conflict zone, whom one Georgian official has implicated in the most recent deaths.
Seven people were injured during the night of June 15-16 when Georgian forces using machines guns, mortars, and grenade launchers subjected the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, to what one South Ossetian official termed the worst artillery bombardment since 2004.
Two people were reported killed and six wounded in a subsequent Georgian artillery attack on Tskhinvali during the night of July 3-4. And a further six Ossetians died and between 15-20 were reportedly injured in a similar bombardment during the night of August 1-2, prompting the South Ossetian authorities to begin evacuating women, children, and elderly people from Tskhinvali to neighboring North Ossetia.
Days earlier, Georgian forces claimed to have repelled an attempt by South Ossetian units during the night of July 28-29 to regain control of the Sarabuk heights, which Georgian forces occupied on July 4, displacing a monitoring post manned by the Joint Peacekeeping Force deployed in the conflict zone since 1992 under an agreement signed by then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin and then-Georgian State Council Chairman Eduard Shevardnadze. "Nezavisimaya gazeta" quoted South Ossetian government spokeswoman Irina Gagloyeva as claiming on July 31 that Georgia was seeking to isolate completely the Djava district, which borders on Russia, from Tskhinvali.
The periodic exchanges of artillery fire are just one component of more widespread tension and instability. Georgian and South Ossetian forces regularly apprehend representatives of the opposing side and hold them for several days before releasing them. Russian war planes overflew South Ossetia on July 8 in what Moscow termed a warning to Tbilisi not to undertake military action to secure the release of four Georgian servicemen detained by the South Ossetian side during the night of July 7-8.
There has been a series of terrorist bombings in Tskhinvali that the South Ossetian leadership has blamed on Georgian special services, while some Georgian observers have attributed them to infighting between rival Ossetian mafia groups. On July 3, Dmitry Sanakoyev, whom Georgian President Mikheli Saakashvili named in May 2007 to head a pro-Georgian provisional government in South Ossetia, escaped unscathed when his motorcade hit a land mine and was subjected to gunfire.Tensions With Peacekeepers
In addition, there are tensions within the South Ossetian leadership between the republic's de facto President Eduard Kokoity and Interior Minister Mikhail Mindzayev, and between the South Ossetian leadership as a whole and Major General Murat Kulakhmetov, the commander of the Russian contingent of the Joint Peacekeeping Force, Georgian expert Mamuka Areshidze told the Georgian weekly "Mteli kvira" on July 28.
Both Kokoity and South Ossetian Deputy Prime Minister Boris Chochiyev, one of the four co-chairmen of the Joint Control Commission (JCC) tasked with monitoring the situation in the conflict zone, lambasted Kulakhmetov for allegedly failing to prevent the Georgian artillery attack on Tskhinvali in early July.
Captain Vladimir Ivanov, who is press spokesman for the Joint Peacekeeping Force, has twice accused the South Ossetian side of preventing that force from inspecting on July 25 and 31 additional fortifications under construction northwest of the village of Chorbauli and in the village of Zemo Prisi. South Ossetian Interior Minister Mindzayev was quoted by civil.ge on July 31 as admitting that South Ossetia is building fortifications in violation of formal agreements it has signed. He added, however, that since the Georgian side is strengthening its defenses, the South Ossetians have no choice but to do likewise.
Kokoity nonetheless continues to look to Moscow for support. The South Ossetian leadership refused to attend a meeting in Brussels on July 22 under the EU aegis between South Ossetian, Georgian, and Russian representatives. The reasons cited by Chochiyev on July 19 for that refusal were, first, that Georgia was to be represented by Minister for Reintegration Temur Iakobashvili, whose title is anathema to the South Ossetians, and second, that North Ossetia was not invited to send representatives to the talks. North Ossetian President Taymuraz Mamsurov has repeatedly argued in favor of the unification of North and South Ossetia within the Russian Federation.
Tbilisi, for its part, rejected a Russian proposal in late June to convene a session of the JCC -- which has not met for two years -- in Moscow to discuss how to defuse tensions. Chochiyev nonetheless reaffirmed during a meeting in Tskhinvali on July 24 with Ambassador Terhi Hakala, who heads the OSCE Mission in Georgia, that the JCC remains the only forum for discussing the conflict that is acceptable to South Ossetia.
On August 2, Iakobashvili traveled to South Ossetia and proposed direct talks with South Ossetian officials. But Kokoity rejected that offer as "a routine PR exercise" and reaffirmed that South Ossetia "will not try to reach any agreement with anyone without the participation of North Ossetia and Russia," regnum.ru reported on August 3.Increasing Militarization
Meanwhile, on July 14, Colonel Kazbek Friyev announced that the 500-strong Ossetian Joint Peacekeeping Forces contingent, which he commands, will be augmented by an additional 50 men in light of the Georgian parliament's decision to increase the manpower of the Georgian armed forces by some 5,000 men to a total of 37,000 servicemen, kavkaz-uzel.ru reported. On July 29, Kokoity advocated increasing both the Russian and Ossetian peacekeeping contingents by a further 300 troops, the maximum permitted.
But Shota Malashkhia, who heads the Georgian parliament's interim commission on territorial integrity, immediately rejected that proposal on the grounds that it would give the combined Russian and Ossetian contingents an unfair numerical advantage over their Georgian counterparts, Caucasus Press reported on July 30. The Russian contingent includes an unknown number of Chechen servicemen from the notorious Vostok battalion, which Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov wants disbanded.
In the wake of each of the two most recent artillery attacks on Tskhinvali, Kokoity has reacted by announcing a major security initiative (a general mobilization on July 4, and the evacuation of women, children, and the elderly from Tskhinvali on August 2), while the Russian Foreign Ministry has released statements condemning imputed Georgian aggression and calling on both sides to show restraint.
Meanwhile, Georgian Interior Ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili on August 2 denied that Georgian forces used mortars or long-range missiles to attack Tskhinvali, while Mamuka Kurashvili, who commands the Georgian peacekeeping contingent in the conflict zone, accused the Russian peacekeepers of opening fire during the night of August 1-2 on the Georgian-populated village of Nikozi, kavkaz-uzel.ru reported. Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Colonel Aleksandr Drobyshvesky rejected that allegation as "a dirty provocation."
A Georgian Defense Ministry official denied on August 3 Russian media reports of a Georgian troop buildup on the border between South Ossetia and the rest of Georgia. But the raised level of tensions, and the mutually unacceptable conditions set by both sides for talks on defusing those tensions, only increase the danger that the military muscle-flexing and brinkmanship both sides have engaged in in recent weeks could escalate into larger-scale hostilities.
Meanwhile, on August 3 de facto Abkhaz President Sergei Bagapsh announced that light of the deteriorating situation in South Ossetia, Abkhazia has "suspended" its participation in the talks scheduled to open on August 15 in Berlin under the UN aegis on resolving the Abkhaz conflict.