With five days left to go before a parliamentary vote on the presence of Russian peacekeepers in the breakaway region of South Ossetia, Georgian officials are taking steps to assure the international community that caution dictates their actions toward Moscow. The change in rhetoric comes following a warning from the United States that Georgia's attempts to secure an immediate withdrawal of Russian peacekeepers from the conflict zone are potentially "destabilizing."
Events came to a head on February 8 when Georgia detained three Russian troops for being in the conflict zone without passports or Georgian visas. Their arrest followed a heated war of words between Georgian police and Russian peacekeepers over a February 1 car crash that involved a Georgian resident of the conflict zone. Both sides have accused the other of building up their troop presence in the region in response to the incidents.
Echoing earlier charges, the Russian Foreign Ministry condemned the detention of the three officers as "a provocation," while Russian officials described the arrest as pushing both sides to the brink of conflict. Georgia, for its part, had denounced Moscow's accusations about a Georgian troop build-up in the region in response to the incidents as a deliberate disinformation campaign.
On February 10, after negotiations with Russian Ambassador Vladimir Chkhikvishvili, Georgia turned the three Russian men over to Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) observers who escorted them back towards the border with Russia.
At a news conference Friday, Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili apparently sought to downplay tensions over the incident with the announcement that the current situation in South Ossetia "is not alarming."
"[R]ecent developments in relations with Russia make us more cautious, more watchful than before," he added. "We will not compromise where observance of the law is concerned, but we will also do our best not to lose control over the situation in the region," Okruashvili told reporters.
The change in rhetoric comes after a February 9 statement by US Ambassador to the OSCE Julie Finley that termed Georgia's expected decision to expel the peacekeepers "destabilizing" without a substitute peacekeeping mechanism in place, and urged the government of President Mikheil Saakashvili to exercise "caution" in resolving the dispute.
The Georgian parliament is widely expected to issue a statement on February 15 calling for the prompt and unilateral withdrawal of Russian troops from the conflict zone as a destabilizing force. Russia, however, argues that Georgia does not have the legal right to secure a unilateral withdrawal of peacekeepers from South Ossetia. Instead, it argues, this decision must be made by all members of the quadripartite Joint Control Commission (JCC) representing Russia, Georgia, South Ossetia and the Russian autonomous republic of North Ossetia, which addresses issues in the conflict zone. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) acts as an observer to the JCC.
Speaking in Vienna, Ambassador Finley urged that Georgia "proceed with caution as it considers how to address the question of the effectiveness of the Joint Peace Keeping Force" headed by Russia in South Ossetia.
The ambassador's comments followed a statement by Georgian Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili that noted that a South Ossetian peacekeeping force made up only of Georgians and Russians "would have been logical and understandable."
The minister went on to propose a joint Georgian-South Ossetian police force for the conflict zone once demilitarization is complete. Bezhuashvili also pressed for fulfillment of earlier agreements on allowing OSCE peacekeepers to act and move freely throughout South Ossetia and to establish permanent control over the Roki Tunnel that connects North and South Ossetia.
Ambassador Finley gave Georgia some room to maneuver by announcing that the US "agrees" and OSCE reports "verify" that the Joint Peacekeeiping Forces, or JPKF, "could be more effective." At the same time, she recommended that Georgia fulfill its 500-person peacekeeping quota in South Ossetia "in strict coordination with existing mechanisms, in full transparency, and in accordance with previous agreements." Since the summer of 2004, Georgia has kept its troop size far below the Russian and Ossetian contingents.
Ambassador Finley also urged Georgia to concentrate on its South Ossetia peace proposal, widely supported by US, Russian and European officials, and to pursue diplomatic avenues to a peaceful settlement of the conflict.
Some observers conjecture that the US statement prompted the change in Georgia's official tone. But one senior member of the Georgian parliament characterized Finley's statement as little more than "ordinary diplomatic advice from a friend."
"We should not overestimate the importance of this statement by the United States," Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Kote Gabashvili told the online news service Civil.ge on February 9. "The U.S. calls on us not to take such steps that might trigger provocations.
Gabashvili cited parliament's decision in October 2005 to wait four months before passing a resolution on the Russian peacekeepers' presence in South Ossetia one sign that Georgia has already been "very cautious" in this regard.
On February 13, the parliamentary foreign relations and security and defense committees will discuss Russian peacekeepers' performance in South Ossetia. On February 15, parliament will adopt a resolution in accordance with government reports and the committees' findings.
President Saakashvili is expected to make a speech to the nation following parliament's vote. Both Western and Russian officials state they are looking to the Georgian leader to bring diplomacy back into the Georgian-Russian dialogue as well as the South Ossetia peace process.
Some observers, however, worry that Georgia has taken US support for President Saakashvili's government for granted and could be testing the limits of that support with its behavior in South Ossetia.
Georgia "made history" by securing American and OSCE support for its South Ossetia peace plan, but should now "take advantage of this backing to push steadily for progress in implementing the plan even though it will no doubt take longer than the year the Georgian side has optimistically allowed for its fulfillment," said Cory Welt, an analyst at the Washington, DC-based Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington,
Calling for the peacekeepers to withdraw without first drawing up a replacement plan is "unnecessary and counterproductive," added Welt. "It can only make Georgia look powerless, if Russia refuses to budge, or acts irresponsibly, [or] if the resolution leads to a conflict," he said. "Georgia can't force South Ossetians to negotiate by removing their security umbrella."
Russia, for its part, argues that withdrawing Russian peacekeepers from South Ossetia, where most residents now hold Russian citizenship, would create "serious problems for all the parties involved." At a February 9 news conference, Russia's United Nations Ambassador Andrei Denisov repeated statements by President Vladimir Putin that Russia will adhere to a "universality principle" in dealing with regional conflicts. In other words, if one breakaway region, such as Kosovo in the Balkans, is granted independence, all breakaway regions must be allowed to follow suit.
Georgian observers have largely dismissed the principle as a tactic intended to favor the breakaway Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which both depend heavily on Russia for economic and political support.
Theresa Freese, a graduate of The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, is a freelance journalist and political analyst who has been conducting research on unresolved conflicts in the South Caucasus since 2003.