Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania is scheduled November 5 to meet Eduard Kokoity, leader of the renegade region of South Ossetia, in an effort to ease tension that has simmered since last summer. Both sides believe chances for a breakthrough in the peace process are slim.
Zhvania, speaking to reporters on November 4, said; "the [Georgian-South Ossetian] situation can no longer remain as it is." Yet, Zhvania went on to admit that his expectations for a change in the status quo are low. The Georgian prime minister indicated that the agenda for the planned November 5 meeting in the Russian resort of Sochi is limited to measures that would reduce the chances of renewed conflict.
"I intend to push several issues," Zhvania said. "The most important is the demilitarization of the conflict zone. It is also very important to secure free movement in the area. In particular, the Georgian population [in South Ossetia] should have the ability to get to their villages via Tskhinvali [the regional capital]."
Prior to his departure for Sochi, Kokoity met with South Ossetian legislators, the Rustavi 2 reported. Meanwhile, regional self-defense units started three days of military maneuvers in the Java District -- an area that is "outside the conflict area," the Interfax-AVN news agency said. Tbilisi and Tskhinvali have been at odds since a 1991-92 conflict, which left South Ossetia operating beyond Georgia's administrative reach. Despite the lack of a pact to defined South Ossetia's political relationship to Georgia, the two sides coexisted in relative peace for over a decade. Tension began to escalate again in the late spring in connection with President Mikheil Saakashvili's drive to reestablish Tbilisi's authority across all Georgian territory. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Georgian officials initially sought to repeat the "Ajaria" scenario in South Ossetia, mounting economic pressure on the regional leadership while seeking to foment discontent among local inhabitants. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Accordingly, Tbilisi took action to curtail the smuggling of Russian goods via South Ossetia to Georgia. Georgian officials also extended "humanitarian assistance" to beleaguered Ossetian villages. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
These policies, however, failed to achieve Tbilisi's goals. Kokoity successfully played on Ossetians' lingering fears of Georgian aggression to retain support for his leadership team. Subsequently, rising tension produced an armed confrontation in August 2004, when a week of clashes left 19 Georgian troops and an unspecified number of Ossetian combatants dead. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Georgian forces eventually withdrew from positions that they had taken up during the August fighting. A Joint Peacekeeping Force then assumed responsibility for keeping the two sides apart.
Tension has remained high since August. Tbilisi's has tried unsuccessfully to get the international community involved in the search for a South Ossetia settlement. Russia, a key backer of South Ossetia's de facto independence, has used its influence within the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to block Georgian efforts to organize an international conference on the issue. Moscow has also prevented a significant expansion of OSCE monitoring efforts in the region.
Meanwhile, recent reports indicate that Tbilisi's ability to control South Ossetia-related smuggling is slipping. An investigative report published by the Kviris Palitra weekly said that the main smuggling routes in South Ossetia have been restored after suffering damage during the August fighting. Instead of selling the goods at the vast Ergneti market, which Georgian authorities effectively shut down, goods smuggled from Russia are now kept at warehouses in Tskhinvali. The goods are then smuggled into Georgia in small batches by Georgian villagers, who work mainly at night.
The conflict could flare again at almost any time. OSCE monitors report that both sides have worked in recent months to fortify their respective military positions. In addition, the sides continue to exchange gunfire. Firefights are now common at night. Analysts say the night-time gun battles are designed not so much to inflict casualties, but more to keep tensions running high.
One of the few encouraging developments since the summer, at least from Tbilisi's standpoint, is a perceived shift in Russia's position on the conflict. Representatives from Russia and Georgia, along with those from North and South Ossetia, comprise the Joint Control Commission, which is the primary conflict-resolution vehicle to resolve the Tbilisi-Tskhinvali standoff. At a JCC meeting in Moscow in late September, Russia indicated that it might be willing to expand the area open to OSCE monitoring. Such an expansion could make it more difficult for South Ossetian units to train and equip themselves for combat.
Since that JCC meeting, Moscow has been preoccupied with an internal political crisis in Abkhazia, Georgia's other break-away entity. The crisis, precipitated by a disputed "presidential election," has bitterly divided the Abkhaz political elite. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. A recent Russian attempt to reconcile the two presidential contenders failed. Sergei Bagapsh, who insists he is the election winner, is planning to proceed with his inauguration in early December. Raul Khajimba, who has Moscow's backing, seeks a do-over vote in December, claiming that the October 3 election was marred by numerous irregularities and is thus not valid.
Jaba Devdariani is a Human Rights Officer with the OSCE Mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina and a longtime journalist in Georgia. This commentary does not reflect the views of the OSCE.