Georgian Parliament Votes to Boot Russian Peacekeepers from South Ossetia
After weeks of escalating tension, Georgia's parliament unanimously adopted a resolution February 15 calling for the replacement of Russian peacekeepers in the breakaway region of South Ossetia. The resolution did not set a deadline for the troops' departure.
The parliamentary measure criticized the peacekeepers' performance, charging that they were abetting an attempt by Russia to annex South Ossetia. It also called on the Georgian government to work with the international community on an alternative peacekeeping plan that would secure stability in the region.
In an apparent move in this direction, Georgian State Minister for Conflict Resolution Giorgi Khaindrava met with Roy Reeve, mission chief for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), earlier on February 15 to discuss the peacekeeper situation, the Prime News Agency reported. Khaindrava told the Russian news agency Interfax that Georgia would like the OSCE to head up a new peacekeeping mission, but declined to say whether or not the hoped-for contingent would include Russian troops. Russian peacekeepers have been stationed in South Ossetia since 1992 under the terms of an agreement signed by former Russian president Boris Yeltsin and former Georgian leader Eduard Shevardnadze.
Moscow did not initially issue an official statement on the parliamentary resolution. But in comments on to reporters in Vienna on February 15, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused Georgia of staging a series of recent clashes in the conflict zone in a bid to push the Russians out. "All this looks like an attempt by the Georgian leadership to make Russia responsible for their own inability to establish a direct dialogue with South Ossetia," Lavrov said, the Russian news agency RIA Novosti reported. The Georgian government's behavior toward the peacekeepers "goes beyond all decency," he added.
A group of Russian parliamentarians traveled to Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian capital, on February 15 to meet with South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoity and Joint Peacekeeping Forces Commander Maj. Gen. Marat Kulakhmetov. A statement issued by the Russian Embassy in Tbilisi on February 13 stated that "unilateral actions" by the Georgians towards the peacekeepers "might have the most serous consequences for the process of normalization of Russian-Georgian relations and for stability in the region," the online news service Civil.ge reported Georgian media outlets as saying.
Ties between Tbilisi and Moscow have rapidly deteriorated over the past two weeks after a car crash on February 1 that involved a Russian peacekeeping vehicle. [For more information, see the EurasiaNet Insight archive]. Three Russian officers were arrested by Georgian police a week later for not carrying Georgian visas in their passports, though were later released. On February 14, Georgian police detained two Joint Peacekeeping Forces vehicles for allegedly carrying insufficient identity documents and stationed them in the nearby Georgian town of Gori.
The dispute comes on the heels of a severe Georgian energy crisis in late January caused by the bombings of two Russian pipelines in the North Caucasus. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. President Mikheil Saakashvili charged that the explosions were a deliberate act of Russian sabotage designed to bring Georgia into closer alignment with Kremlin interests in the South Caucasus. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
In his annual state of the nation speech to parliament on February 14, however, Saakashvili did not directly address the conflict with Russia over its peacekeepers, but noted that "we want our Ossetians back in Georgia." The president devoted greater time to Georgia's enhanced military capabilities, claiming that the country would become a candidate for membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 2006 and could expect to join the defense alliance by 2008. "What does NATO membership mean for us? It means that Georgia's border will be NATO's borders," Saakashvili told members of parliament during his 80-minute televised speech.
South Ossetian separatist leaders, who are staunch allies of Moscow, have begun to take steps in apparent anticipation of further clashes with Georgia. Kokoity told reporters February 15 that his government would reject the presence of international peacekeepers in the region. South Ossetian leaders also said they would require Georgian citizens not living in South Ossetia to obtain visas for travel in the region, if Georgian officials continued to enforce similar requirements for Russian peacekeepers in the conflict zone.
In addition, Kokoity's government signed a mutual defense pact with the leaders of Georgia's other separatist territory, Abkhazia. Both territories pledged to take joint action for "warding off the threat" in case of "violation of the territorial integrity" of either self-declared state, the Russian news agency ITAR-TASS reported.