After an alleged attack by South Ossetian forces on Georgian peacekeepers, hopes are rapidly dying in Tbilisi and Moscow for a peaceful reconciliation over the status of the breakaway territory. The clash comes less than a week after a summit between President Mikhail Saakashvili and President Vladimir Putin that was heralded by both sides as a sign of the new understanding between Georgia and Russia.
The attack came early Thursday morning when South Ossetian soldiers opened fire on a Georgian checkpoint between the villages of Tamarasheni and Kurta not far from the border with Georgia. No reports have indicated whether Georgian troops returned fire, but the Georgian government claims that one peacekeeper was abducted by South Ossetian forces and two Georgian soldiers were injured. The South Ossetian government has denied the attack took place, dismissing the reports as "misinformation," the Russian news agency Interfax reported.
The reported incident, as described by Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania, came just hours after South Ossetian fighters captured and disarmed some 40 Georgian peacekeepers in the nearby village of Vanati. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has called on the South Ossetians to release the peacekeepers, characterizing the action in a statement as "an extremely dangerous step."
Media reports have indicated that Georgian troops have been placed on stand-by in response to the crisis, but at a news briefing in Tbilisi on Thursday Georgian State Security Minister Vano Merabishvili stated that the military had been ordered to refrain from using their weapons. "The Georgian side's main task is to avert hostilities. . . At the moment, Georgia has managed to avoid being dragged into large-scale hostilities," ITAR-TASS reported Merabishvili as saying.
That call for caution was echoed by the Russian ambassador to Georgia, Vladimir Chkhikvishvili, who told reporters that Georgian State Minister Goga Khaindrava was scheduled to fly to Moscow on July 9 to discuss South Ossetia with Russian officials. "[A] further [escalation] of tension will trigger a great deal of problems for Georgia and for the entire region," the news site Civil Georgia reported Chkhikvishvili as saying. "However, there is a simple way out. [T]he conflicting sides should launch talks and settle the existing problems through dialogue." Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and Russian President Vladimir Putin are scheduled to discuss the situation in a previously arranged phone conversation, Chkhikvishvili said.
Yet Moscow is showing little inclination to soften its own position on the crisis. On July 7, Georgian troops stopped a 10-vehicle Russian convoy allegedly carrying over 100 non-guided missiles into a zone patrolled by Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia. The missiles were confiscated to the nearby Georgian town of Gori, about 35 kilometers from the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali, and later taken to Tbilisi. The remaining eight trucks, carrying peacekeepers, food and fuel, were allowed to proceed.
The Russian Defense Ministry denounced the seizure as a "provocation," according to ITAR-TASS, while the Russian Foreign Ministry described the seizure as "aimed at having the situation spiral into violence, which could lead to armed confrontation." The Defense Ministry has also charged that Russian troops accompanying the convoy were beaten by Georgian forces, the Russian daily Izvestia reported.
The remarks stand in sharp contrast to Saakashvili's sunny assessment at the conclusion of his July 2-4 summit meeting with President Putin in Moscow that the two countries were "approaching a new phase when predictability and stability should be features of our relations."
An escalating war of words in the Russian and Georgian press has only added to the tensions. On July 7, Georgia's Rustavi 2 television station reported that the head of Russia's peacekeeping forces in South Ossetia, General Svyatoslov Nabdzorov, had attempted to commit suicide after being recalled to Russia for losing the missiles to Georgia a charge denied by Moscow. Russian media has countered with tales of Georgian Interior Minister Irakli Okruashvili personally driving one of the peacekeepers' missile-laden trucks off to Gori, the nearby Georgian town where the missiles were temporarily stored. According to Russian press reports, the two trucks seized by Georgian forces have since been returned to Russian peacekeepers.
For now, Saakashvili appears to have settled for a cautious response to the crisis, promising to work with Russia on avoiding a reoccurrence of the arms incident, but emphasizing that Georgia would block any future weapons shipment into South Ossetia.
"We will control every route to prevent any weapons in any form, be it under peacekeeping operations or in any other form, from being brought in" to South Ossetia, Saakashvili said in a television broadcast Wednesday night from Iran, where he was traveling on a state visit. "Particularly given that the weapons which were brought in indeed are weapons of terror. I will not allow any citizen of our country, whether an ethnic Ossetian or an ethnic Georgian, to be killed by weapons brought from Russia."
Saakashvili went on to dispute Moscow's claim that State Minister Goga Khaindrava, Georgia's representative on the Joint Control Commission, the quadripartite body monitoring the South Ossetian cease-fire, had prior knowledge of the convoy. Russian press reports state that the non-guided missiles were intended to reinforce South Ossetia's air defenses as part of a helicopter squadron to be deployed to the territory under a June 2 agreement.
The argument, Saakashvili said, was "an attempt on the part of the [Russian] peacekeeping force to blame all of this on [State Minister] Goga Khaindrava . . . When we checked all of the information, it turned out that this was not so, as we thought."
During his meeting in Moscow with Putin, Saakashvili had pledged to push for Ajaria-style "bloodless change" in South Ossetia rather than "violent methods" to return the territory to Georgian control. Saakashvili said that he had received assurances from President Vladimir Putin that Moscow would not interfere in the row between Tbilisi and South Ossetia and would push the breakaway region's leaders for a peaceful resolution to the dispute.
In recent weeks, Tbilisi, Moscow and the South Ossetian government in Tskhinvali have been caught up in a vortex of counter-accusations over plans to use military force to resolve the stand-off over the region, which has held de facto independence from Georgia since 1992. After South Ossetian forces took three Georgian government employees hostage, Tbilisi had refused to take part in a July 1 meeting of the Joint Control Commission that was scheduled to discuss disagreements between Russia and Georgia over the make-up of the region's peacekeeping force.
Maintaining at least a modicum of cooperation with Moscow is essential to the resolution of two other outstanding bugbears of Georgian-Russian relations Abkhazia and the closure of two Russian military bases at Akhalkalaki and Batumi.
With no breakthrough on either issue at the Moscow summit, though, the Georgian government had earlier strained to highlight positive aspects of its ties with Russia. Plans announced at the meeting for a simplified visa regime between the two countries and the signature of a friendship treaty this September commanded the bulk of the Georgian government's attention in follow-up statements. A much-hyped offer to establish a joint anti-terrorism center in Georgia has been described by some in the Russian press as a potential quid pro quo for the withdrawal of Russian troops from Georgia and for Moscow pressing South Ossetia's leaders to make amends with Tbilisi.
Saakashvili has categorically rejected the claim. In resolving Georgia's internal conflicts, he told Interfax, there can be "no bartering."
Sergei Blagov is a Moscow-based specialist in CIS political affairs.