Russian leaders are hinting that Moscow may retaliate using economic means if Georgia takes action designed to expel Russian peacekeepers from the breakaway territory of South Ossetia. Some political analysts are concerned that the diplomatic confrontation over the peacekeepers' continuing presence could reignite armed conflict in the Caucasus.
The Georgian parliament is expected to consider a resolution on February 15 demanding the immediate withdrawal of Russian peacekeepers from South Ossetia. Given the recent tussles between Georgia and Russia, political analysts say that the withdrawal resolution seems assured of passage. The Georgian parliament first expressed disapproval of the Russian peacekeepers' performance last October, accusing Moscow of providing military assistance to the leaderships of both South Ossetia and Abkhazia. At the time, Parliament said it would review the conduct of the South Ossetia peacekeepers in February and that of the Abkhaz force in July.
Russian political and military leaders say the Georgian vote will not determine the peacekeepers' fate. Gen. Marat Kulakhmetov, the commander of the Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia, announced on February 6 that his force is staying put. Meanwhile, Andrei Kokoshin, chairman of the Russian Federation Council's Committee on CIS Affairs, said that Georgia did not enjoy the right to make "unilateral decisions" concerning the peacekeepers. The RIA Novosti news agency quoted Kokoshin as saying February 9 that the peacekeeping force's mandate is "based on agreements that take into account the interests of both conflicting sides, so severing these relations unilaterally would simply mean going against the established norms of international law." Other Russian lawmakers have commented on Georgia's position in decidedly less civil terms. For example, Nikolai Bezborodov, member of Duma's Defense Committee, said on February 6; "The fantasies of Georgian authorities have gone beyond the boundaries of reasonable thinking."
On February 9, the Russian Defense Ministry circulated comments by Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, originally made in an interview with the Italian newspaper La Stampa, hinting that Tbilisi could pay a hefty economic price if the Georgian parliament presses ahead with its withdrawal resolution. He emphasized that Georgia remains dependent on Russia as an energy supplier. "The Georgian leadership understands very well that without Russia, it will fail to deal with persistent problems in the country relating to energy issues," Ivanov said. In late January, Georgia experienced an acute energy crisis when a mysterious explosion destroyed a section of Russian pipeline, interrupting natural gas supplies. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
In recent weeks, tension in the South Ossetian security zone has escalated dramatically. On February 8, Georgian police took three Russian military officers into custody in the security zone, asserting that the trio did not have passports or visas. Georgian State Minister for Conflict Resolution Giorgi Khaindrava indicated February 9 that the Russian officers could be deported. "We were ready to issue visas because we really want to defuse tension," the Civil Georgia website quoted Khaindrava as saying. "But what can we do? They did not even have passports."
Kulakhmetov, the Russian peacekeeping force commander, characterized the incident as a "provocation." He added; "In recent days, the Georgian side has been creating artificial problems."
On February 3, Georgian officials claimed that South Ossetian militia units possessed Igla anti-aircraft missiles. They also accused South Ossetian separatists, acting with apparent Russian support, of plotting to assassinate Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, intending to shoot down his helicopter using one of the portable missiles. Russian and South Ossetian leaders denied the accusation. Two days earlier, Georgia's United Nations representative Revaz Adamia accused Russia of ethnic cleansing in Abkhazia. Moscow dismissed Adamia's accusation. "It is below our dignity to comment on such claims," said Mikahil Troyansky, Russia's deputy Foreign Ministry spokesman.
A traffic accident on January 31 involving a Georgian civilian's car and a truck belonging to the Russian peacekeeping force in the village of Tkviavi nearly sparked an armed confrontation. When Georgian police moved to confiscate the truck, Russian officers called for reinforcements. A 10-hour standoff ended only after direct negotiations between Gen. Kulakhmetov and a Georgian presidential representative.
At a January 31 news conference Russian President Vladimir Putin helped stoke tension in South Ossetia and Abkhazia with his announcement that Russia would recognize the two breakaway territories if Western nations opted to acknowledge the independence of Kosovo in the Balkans. Putin also rebuked the Georgian government's actions during the late January natural gas crisis. At the time, Saakashvili suggested that Russia had intentionally turned off the natural gas tap. Putin retorted that the Russian government had nothing to do with the interruption, adding that Georgian leaders were ungrateful for Russian efforts to restore natural gas deliveries. "While workers were trying to fix the gas pipeline in freezing temperatures, in response we only saw Georgian authorities spitting at us," Putin said.
The rising tension prompted a statement February 9 from Julie Finley, US Ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, reiterating the need for a negotiated solution to the South Ossetia and Abkhazia conflicts. While the US statement expressed support for Georgia's territorial integrity, and applauded recent moves by Tbilisi to reduce its energy dependence on Russia, Finley stated that "the United States urges the sovereign Parliament of Georgia to proceed with caution as it considers how to address the question of the effectiveness of the Joint Peace Keeping Force."
"The United States calls on all concerned to avoid the harsh language that has recently blemished the debate and asks them, instead, to adopt more measured tones that can lead to real dialogue," the statement added.
Sergei Blagov is a Moscow-based specialist in CIS political affairs.