A relative degree of calm may have returned to South Ossetia in recent weeks, but the ongoing rumblings from both Tbilisi and Moscow only emphasize the need for a new mechanism to hold the peace in this remote region. Rather than facilitating an end to the conflict, the 1992 cease-fire agreement that brought an end to hostilities between South Ossetia and Georgia appears to have become a stumbling block for attempts to negotiate a resolution to the crisis amenable to all parties. Meanwhile, as tensions continue to escalate, the international community has largely restricted itself to urging both sides to avoid the resumption of violence.
The limitations of this peacekeeping framework were most recently displayed following the July 15 meeting of the Joint Control Commission (JCC) charged with overseeing the 1992 cease-fire agreement.
At the time, hopes ran high that a workable compromise could be found to resolve the disputes over hostages and missile shipments that had brought Russia, Georgia and South Ossetia to the brink of armed conflict.
Under the terms of the so-called "intermediate agreement" signed at the meeting, Georgia pledged to withdraw recent Interior Ministry troop deployments that violate the 500-troop limit for peacekeeping forces in the region and dismantle additional police checkpoints it has established in the conflict zone. At the same time, South Ossetia stated that a few hundred armed "volunteers" from Abkhazia and North Ossetia would leave the territory. Russia, Georgia and South Ossetia also all agreed to avoid the use of force to resolve the standoff.
Nonetheless, the meeting, held within the framework of the 1992 cease-fire agreement, managed to sidestep two issues central to a lasting resolution of the conflict. Russia and South Ossetia stonewalled on Georgian demands that a joint Russian-Georgian customs checkpoint be installed at the Roki Tunnel linking South Ossetia and Russia to prevent guerilla fighters and illegal weapons from reaching the disputed territory. Arguments for the withdrawal of South Ossetian militia from the Java district near Russia met with a similar failure.
Reasons for this roadblock can be traced to the peacekeeping provisions themselves. Signed by Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili's predecessor, Eduard Shevardnadze, the agreement was originally intended to separate Georgian and South Ossetian forces into two zones according to their deployment at the conclusion of hostilities in 1992, with Russian peacekeepers acting as a buffer sandwiched in between.
Yet the so-called "peace" only worked so long as Tbilisi stood willing to maintain that status quo a tactic favored by Shevardnadze. With Saakashvili's advent to power, policy emphasis shifted to restoring Georgia's territorial integrity and reclaiming control over South Ossetia, potentially as an autonomous republic within a Georgian federation.
In Tbilisi's view, the 1992 agreement presents several obstacles to Georgia's pursuit of its national interests. Georgia, Russia, South Ossetia and the Russian autonomous republic of North Ossetia are all limited to 500 peacekeeping troops in South Ossetia, but North Ossetian forces are represented by Russian Interior Ministry troops. Taking into account that South Ossetia has voiced its intention to join Russia, this setup is seen as resulting in a significant over-representation of pro-Russian peacekeeping troops. Russia also holds responsibility for the general command of peacekeeping troops in the region.
Tbilisi also argues that the peacekeepers' authorized zone of action, largely centered on the area around the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali, leaves uncovered one of the main areas of operation for South Ossetian militias, the Java district, located in northern South Ossetia near the border with Russia. Moscow, citing the 1992 accords, has argued that it does not have the authorization to take steps regarding the militias that operate in the district.
Georgia senses itself similarly stymied within the JCC, where Russia can rely on the pro-Russian stances of South Ossetia and North Ossetia to stonewall Georgian proposals as need be.
Not surprisingly, therefore, Tbilisi has pushed for resolution of recent disputes outside of the framework of the JCC.
Georgia's sense of frustration with the existing peace process was most recently communicated during Saakashvili's July 20 address to the opening session of the Ajarian Supreme Council. If the agreements signed by Shevardnadze "forbid us to raise the national flag" in South Ossetia, Saakashvili told legislators, "I am ready to withdraw from them and denounce them," Interfax reported the president as saying.
Saakashvili went on to say that Georgian police recently deployed in South Ossetia to defend Georgian villages from attacks by South Ossetian militia would remain on site, regardless of whether they represented a violation of the 1992 accords. "[A] war is undoubtedly a disaster, but a state which is not capable of fending off an external aggression is bound for defeat," the president said. Moscow claims that some 3,000 Georgian troops are currently stationed in South Ossetia some 2,500 troops over the 500-troop limit established for each peacekeeper unit at the end of the 1991-1992 South Ossetian war.
The clash over peacekeeping troops has centered of late on Major-General Svyatoslav Nabdzorov, the head of peacekeeping forces in South Ossetia. Georgia has undertaken an aggressive government and media campaign for Nabdzorov's removal, arguing that the peacekeeper chief has attempted to govern South Ossetia as a Russian fiefdom. Georgian Armed Forces Chief of Staff Givi Iukuridze, citing a June 2 decision by the JCC, has stated that Nabdzorov is expected to leave South Ossetia within two weeks, the news site Civil Georgia reported on July 26. The Russian Defense Ministry has only conceded that a replacement for the peacekeeping commander has been scheduled.
So far, as the peace process limps along, the international community has failed to offer any viable alternatives to the 1992 accords. At a United Nations press briefing on July 21, Secretary-General Kofi Annan stated that his staff was monitoring the situation in South Ossetia "very carefully," but thought it unlikely that the UN would take an active role in the conflict zone.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which maintains 10 observers in South Ossetia, has played the most active role in pressing both sides to find a solution to the crisis, but so far has had few concrete results. Former Bulgarian President Zhelyu Zhelev, the OSCE's special envoy for the crisis, and OSCE Georgia mission head Roy Reeve are scheduled to visit Tskhinvali on July 27 for talks with South Ossetia's representative on the JCC, Boris Chochiyev, as well as parliament speaker Znaur Gassiyev and Russian peacekeeping staff.
In a July 27 interview with Civil Georgia, Georgian State Minister Goga Khaindrava, who represents Georgia's interests on the South Ossetian commission, stated that Tbilisi would like the OSCE to assume a broader range of responsibilities for resolution of the crisis. "We want the OSCE to have a more important and active role in the resolution of the conflict. We want the OSCE to monitor the entire territory of South Ossetia, including the Roki pass and the Java district," Khaindrava said.
That proposal is unlike to be echoed by the Kremlin. In a statement issued on July 21, the Russian Foreign Ministry took aim at the OSCE's role in the crisis, arguing that "[f]rom the very beginning, they have not been able to adequately assess the situation and the reasons standing behind its escalation. As a consequence, their actions have not been effective enough. But, what is most important, they have been unbalanced." Moscow has previously suggested that the OSCE is biased in favor of Georgia in the dispute.
"The organization should adopt a clear position regarding the need to prevent an escalation of this conflict and to implement the agreements that are governed by international law," the statement concluded.
Meanwhile, fresh opportunities for conflict continue to surface. On July 21, the Russian Defense Ministry confirmed the shipment of some 40 armored vehicles to South Ossetian peacekeepers. On July 18 Georgian police detained a car carrying the portable "Fagot" anti-tank systems. Russia has claimed that the shipments are part of a routine rotation of weapons and materiel, but in remarks to reporters after a July 20 meeting of the Georgian National Security Council, Parliamentary Chairperson Nino Burjanadze warned that "movement of any armament into the conflict zone should be coordinated with the Georgian side. We will not tolerate these kinds of unilateral moves," Civil Georgia reported.
A minor lull in the war of words took place on July 24 when Georgia returned to Russia 160 unguided missiles seized by Georgian Interior Ministry forces on July 7. Seizure of the shipment, allegedly intended for Russian peacekeepers, had prompted South Ossetian fighters to take roughly 38 Georgian peacekeepers as hostages. All but three of the hostages have since been released. President Saakashvili has argued that their detention occurred at the instigation of Russian intelligence.
But many Georgians charge that Moscow's strong-arm tactics are not limited to armaments and weapons alone. Energy, the long-standing bugbear of relations between the two states, now also plays a role in efforts to force Georgia to moderate its stance on the pro-Russian breakaway territory, they say.
On July 23, Russian energy giant Gazprom slashed gas supplies to Tbilgazi, the Georgian state gas company, forcing a shut-off of gas to four Tbilisi districts with out-standing gas bills. The Georgian English-language daily The Messenger reported Tbilgazi as saying that it was unable to pay the $500,000 in unpaid bills to Gazprom since its bank accounts have been frozen by the Georgian Finance Ministry for non-payment of taxes.
So far, if such a tactic makes up part of Russia's negotiating strategy, Moscow has given no sign. Indeed, apart from dismissing Georgia's charges that Russia is to blame for the conflict over South Ossetia, the Kremlin has refrained from expressing itself clearly on Georgia's claim to the territory. Speaking with reporters earlier this month, Russia's special envoy for South Ossetia, Lev Mirzonov, refused to respond when asked to identify the two countries linked by the Roki Tunnel, the sole roadway connecting Russia and South Ossetia.
That reticence has also characterized Russian President Vladimir Putin's response to the conflict. Saakashvili, in turn, has been careful to refrain from accusing Putin of responsibility for the standoff, preferring instead to lay the blame on "certain forces" within Russia. Ironically, given subsequent developments, Putin's July 2-4 summit with the 36-year-old leader was hailed by the Georgian press as the start of a new era of understanding in Georgian-Russian relations.
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.
Sign up for Eurasianet's free weekly newsletter.