A protracted tug of war over the body of a Georgian man who died under mysterious circumstances in a breakaway, Russian-backed region of Georgia is fueling frustration in Tbilisi – as well as efforts to mend ties – with Russia.
Moscow has distanced itself from the dispute between Georgia and South Ossetia, despite Tbilisi’s appeals for help in hastening the handover of Archil Tatunashvili, a 35-year-old Georgian who died last month while detained by authorities in the Russia-backed enclave.
Citing the need to complete a forensic examination, officials in South Ossetia have defied international calls to release Tatunashvili’s body. Tatunashvili’s family and human rights groups suspect that South Ossetia is delaying the handover to cover up traces of foul play. The particulars of Tatunashvili’s detention and death are hazy. Two others arrested with him were released to Georgia on March 11, apparently unharmed, RFE/RL reported.
Tbilisi holds Moscow responsible for the situation because it regards South Ossetia and another breakaway region, Abkhazia, as Russian-occupied territories and views the separatist governments as subordinate to Moscow.
Following the 2008 Georgian-Russia war, Moscow’s patronage allowed separatists in both regions to act with impunity against Georgian citizens, Tbilisi claims. It points to an incident in 2016, when an Abkhaz border guard shot dead Georgian citizen Giga Otkhozoria on the de-facto border of the breakaway territory.
But on March 12, Moscow told Tbilisi and Tskhinvali to resolve the crisis between themselves.
A few days earlier, Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili made a politically risky call for Moscow to help normalize ties that have remained frozen since the war and Russia’s subsequent recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states.
“We face a choice: arrive at the [war's tenth] anniversary with mutual accusations and sharp statements – and there have been no lack of those in past years – or to take reasonable, if small steps toward taking our relations out of this vicious circle,” Kvirikashvili said in a statement on March 9.
The Georgian leader indicated that help retrieving Tatunashvili’s body would assist reconciliation. Kvirikashvili reiterated his earlier offer to engage directly with the South Ossetian and Abkhazian leaderships.
Moscow hailed the spirit of Kvirikashvili’s statement, saying that it is as ready as Tbilisi to normalize. “Also, we can only welcome the stated desire for [Georgia to be] engaging in a direct dialogue with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which is the only way to resolve the issues that are concerning Georgia and that fall outside the bilateral Russia-Georgian agenda,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said. “This specifically relates to the regrettable incident involving Georgian citizen A. Tatunashvili.”
The Russian response did little to assuage Georgians’ anger, which is now partly directed toward their prime minister. Political opponents and many ordinary Georgians who favor more assertive action toward Russia, described Kvirikashvili’s appeal as capitulatory. “The prime minister has embarrassed himself,” Levan Berdzenishvili, member of the Republican Party told Kviris Palitra magazine. “Obviously, they [the Russians] are not going to give us the body […] and they laugh at us.”
Critics also charge that engaging in direct diplomacy with Abkhazia and South Ossetia would effectively legitimize the separatist regimes.
Others defended the prime minister’s call, saying that it was motivated by his desire to help bring Tatunashvili’s body to his grieving family. Political commentator Ramaz Sakvarelidze told Interpressnews that appealing to Russia made sense if it was part of a wider plan for resolving the crisis. But if appealing to Moscow is the only plan the premier has, “then it will not lead to anything. Moscow does not believe in tears,” Sakvarelidze said.