The current pause in hostilities in Georgia's separatist-minded region of South Ossetia may prove temporary. A shake-up of the Georgian military establishment carried out by President Mikheil Saakashvili is just one indication that Tbilisi remains intent on restoring its authority in South Ossetia.
Saakashvili has made the restoration of Georgia's territorial integrity a top political priority, and the fragile peace in South Ossetia has provided Georgian leaders will an opportunity to reevaluate their reunification strategy. Georgian actions in South Ossetia in recent months have seemed scattered, and, at times, confused, some political analysts in the region contend.
Helping to underscore the Georgian disarray, Saakashvili decided August 25 to sack the Georgian military's Chief of Staff Givi Iukuridze. He was replaced by Vakhtang Kapanadze, a 44-year-old graduate of the US Army War College. Georgian officials said Kapanadze's appointment, along with an accompanying reshuffle of the General Staff, would give the Georgian military leadership a markedly more Western orientation, the Civil Georgia reported. Iukuridze, who studied at the Russian General Staff Academy in Moscow, belongs to a faction of the Georgian officer corps that is oriented more towards Russia. "We expect the General Staff of the Armed Forces to be more active in the process of building up the armed forces," Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania said.
Recent events in South Ossetia revealed flaws not only in the military establishment, but also in the political decision-making process, some political analysts suggest. Georgian officials, they add, mistakenly believed that the policies that enabled Tbilisi to topple Ajaria's irreconcilable strongman, Aslan Abashidze, in early May could be replicated in South Ossetia. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Just as in Ajaria during the early spring, Georgian officials attempted in late May to undermine popular support for South Ossetia's political leadership by offering regional residents economic assistance, including flour and fertilizer, along with other incentives. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Such measures, however, did not produce the hoped-for erosion of public backing for separatist leaders.
South Ossetian authorities proved more successful than their Ajarian counterparts fending off Tbilisi's pressure. A top Ossetian representative, Boris Chochiev, rejected Tbilisi's aid offer June 4, saying South Ossetia "[does] not need your fertilizers; we have enough fertilizer to provide for ourselves. You'd better distribute them among your own Georgian population."
The failure of a "Rose Revolution" scenario to develop in South Ossetia appeared to catch Saakashvili's administration flat-footed in terms of policy options. Having no apparent Plan B in place, Georgian authorities fell back on agreements made during a June 2 session of the Joint Control Commission (JCC), the regional peace-keeping body comprising Georgia, Russia, South Ossetia and North Ossetia. Under terms of the June 2 protocol, Georgian Interior Ministry units withdrew from South Ossetia.
In the ensuing weeks, evidence of a lack of cohesion within the Georgian government emerged. A July 7 incident, in which Georgian forces seized an arms shipment heading from Russia into South Ossetia, provided perhaps the clearest view to the confusion in Tbilisi. Accusations flew among Georgian officials over whether the arms shipment was permissible under the JCC protocol of June 2, prompting a live reading of the document during the evening news. Despite the mixed signals and finger-pointing, the incident did not appear to prompt much reflection in Tbilisi on existing Georgian policies.
For much of July and August, tension continued to rise, culminating in the armed clashes in that left dozens killed and wounded on both sides. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. During this period, the Georgian military Tbilisi took steps to bolster its position in South Ossetia, while Georgian political leaders engaged in an increasingly vitriolic rhetorical joust with Russian and South Ossetian representatives.
The harsh verbal exchanges are continuing even as the sides have taken a step back from a full-scale military confrontation. In recent days, Georgian officials, including Saakashvili, have made public comments on the need for the Georgian population to be prepared for war with Russia. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
On August 25, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement that lambasted the "militaristic rhetoric" of Georgian leaders, adding that the "latest utterances show a complete absence of any sense of restraint."
"Against a backdrop of the failure of the military adventure in South Ossetia, acute social and economic problems in Georgia stand out in even bolder relief," the Russian Foreign Ministry statement continued. "All [the Georgian government's] energy ought to be focused on tackling these problems, instead of directing it in a search for a non-existent
John Mackedon is a Tbilisi-based writer. He works for the on-line publicatin Civil Georgia, and formerly served as a Peace Corps volunteer in the country.