Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili is wielding a stick and extending a carrot to the separatist region of South Ossetia. Georgian leaders say their actions are driven by a determination to eradicate smuggling and corruption. Government critics, meanwhile, charge that Saakashvili seeks a repeat of the "Ajarian" scenario, in which Tbilisi brings a break-away region back under central control by fomenting popular unrest in the region.
In late May Tbilisi stepped up pressure on South Ossetia -- an autonomous republic of Georgia that secured quasi-independence during a separatist struggle in the early 1990s by establishing checkpoints at Georgian-Ossetian administrative border crossings. Those checkpoints are designed to cut off the flow of contraband between the region and Georgia proper. South Ossetia has long had a reputation as a smuggler's haven. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania asserted May 31 interview broadcast by Imedi TV that the checkpoints reduced smuggling "to nil," adding that the government's success in curbing the illicit trade "has made people who have been making a lot of money through these channels nervous."
Tension escalated May 31 when Tbilisi dispatched Interior Ministry forces in to reinforce the checkpoints. The Russian commander of a joint peacekeeping force in South Ossetia, Maj. Gen. Svyatoslav Nabzdorov, called the Georgian move "a dangerous provocation that could have unpredictable consequences," the Interfax-AVN news agency reported. Georgian officials countered that they deployed reinforcements after Russian peacekeepers threatened to use force to remove the checkpoints, the Civil Georgia web site reported.
Following a telephone discussion with Russian President Vladimir Putin late on May 31, Saakashvili announced that the Georgian reinforcements were being pulled back from the checkpoints. At the same time, Tbilisi appears intent on maintaining pressure on South Ossetia. On June 1, Georgian Security Council Secretary Vano Merabishvili said Georgia intends to increase the number of troops and arms in the joint South Ossetian peacekeeping contingent. Already artillery and other equipment have been moved into Georgian-controlled areas of the conflict zone.
"According to the [peacekeeping] agreement, the Russian side has 500 peacekeepers, as well as the Ossetian side," Civil Georgia quoted Merabishvili as saying. "Georgia should also have 500 peacekeepers, but because of the incapability of the previous authorities of Georgia [in the Shevardnadze administration], we have there only 100 soldiers."
South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoiti, using language reminiscent of ousted Ajarian leader Aslan Abashidze, issued an order to his armed loyalists "to use weapons if the state border of the republic of South Ossetia is violated." [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. In an interview with the Russian television channel NTV Mir, Kokoiti added that he "found no peaceful intentions" in Georgia's action to deploy "military hardware" near the South Ossetian administrative border.
Kokoiti also accused Saakashvili of staging a provocation in connection with the attempted visit of the Georgian president's wife, Sandra Roelofs, to a village in the so-called conflict zone. Georgian officials explained that the first lady had planned a public appearance in the village of Tamarasheni, an ethnic Georgian village within South Ossetia, in connection with international children's day. The visit hit a snag, however, when Ossetian separatist forces refused to allow her motorcade to pass through a checkpoint near Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian capital.
Since the end of hostilities between South Ossetia and Georgia in 1992, the region has established a close relationship with Russia. Kokoiti's authority favors unification with the Russian region of North Ossetia. After Kokoiti's Unity movement dominated May 23 regional elections, South Ossetian leaders said they were not interested in reintegration into Georgia, specifically downplaying a recent idea advanced by Tbilisi concerning the establishment of a Georgian federation [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. "We have reiterated for many times that South Ossetia is a sovereign state, and is ready to build only good-neighborly relations with Georgia," the region's self-styled foreign minister, Murad Dzhioyev, told Interfax on May 26.
In Moscow, some observers believe that Saakashvili's administration strives to use the same tactics against Kokoiti's authority as those that forced Abashidze from power in early May. Anatoly Tsyganok, the head of Russia's Center for Military Forecasting, told Russia's Mayak Radio that Tbilisi's attempt to bolster its armed presence in the so-called Ossetian conflict zone in effect represented a trial balloon designed to measure Moscow's support for Tskhinvali. Russia has long been a supporter of Georgia's breakaway regions, in particular Abkhazia and South Ossetia. However, Tbilisi may be finding it hard to gauge Russian support for Ossetia given the fact that Russia did not vigorously back Abashidze during the Ajarian crisis. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
As tension over the checkpoints began to subside, Saakashvili made statements on Georgian state television that were clearly meant to drive a wedge between South Ossetian residents and the region's separatist leadership. The president offered cultural and economic incentives for Ossetians to abandon separatism and once again accept Tbilisi's authority. Foremost among Saakashvili's measures was an announcement that "all Ossetians living in South Ossetia" would receive state "pensions" starting June 1. The president also said Tbilisi would extend agricultural aid to Ossetians, and restore Tbilisi-Tskhinvali rail service. In addition, Saakashvili announced that Georgian state television programming would be translated into Ossetian.
"I appeal to our fellow citizens of Ossetian origin for help," Saakashvili said during his news briefing. "We must together force all sides to engage in dialogue" on Ossetia's status.
Saakashvili's made it abundantly clear, however, that any dialogue would concern only the terms of South Ossetia's reintegration into Georgia. "The disintegration of Georgia will not take place," Saakashvili said. "This is the end of a fragmented Georgia."
Daan van der Shriek, a contributor based in Georgia, contributed reporting for this article.