A new crisis in South Ossetia is threatening to undercut President Mikheil Saakashvili's multilateral peace plan for the breakaway territory a mere two months after it was unveiled. Georgian officials lay blame on Russia for the September 20 shelling of the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali and are calling for an end to the country's peacekeeping role in the conflict zone. Meanwhile, as the United States urges calm, both Russia and South Ossetia have rushed to reject Tbilisi's accusations.
According to news reports, three shells exploded near Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian capital, on Tuesday, September 20, injuring an estimated 10 people. The incident coincided with celebrations commemorating the 15th anniversary of the breakaway region's declaration of independence from Georgia in 1990.
Georgia has charged that the explosions and the presence of heavy equipment in a military parade in Tskhinvali that same day provide proof that heavy weaponry continues to enter into the breakaway territory via the Russian-controlled Roki tunnel that links Georgia and Russia.
"I think the whole process as such has been wrecked," said Georgian State Minister for Conflict Resolution Giorgi Khaindrava in reference to the peace process overseen by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Rather than rely on Russian peacekeepers to maintain the 1992 ceasefire between Georgia and South Ossetia, Khaindrava told the Georgian television station Rustavi-2 on September 22, "[i]t should be an international format. I think it is a common European problem."
According to the press office of Parliamentary Speaker Nino Burjanadze, on September 27 the Georgian parliament will discuss a draft resolution that calls for a sharp reduction in the number of peacekeepers on Georgian territory.
During a nationally televised September 21 speech, Saakashvili reiterated that Georgia is committed to a peaceful resolution to the conflict, but argued that Russia must take responsibility for its own role. "In reality, Russia is ruling this small enclave [South Ossetia], not just through its officials, but with ethnic Russians sent there by Russia and appointed by Russia," he charged "There is no place here for burying your head in the sand. We hope that Russia -- this is not a Georgian-Ossetian problem, it is a Georgian-Russian issue --will play a constructive role so that once and for all we can put an end to all breaches of the peace."
Saakashvili added that the OSCE would investigate the incident to determine the responsible party for the shelling. However, officials at the OSCE office in Tbilisi stated on September 22 that they had not yet been officially asked to pursue an investigation.
Russia has strongly condemned the shelling and use of heavy weaponry in South Ossetia's "independence day" parade, but maintains that the peacekeepers that patrol the breakaway territory still have a constructive role to play. In remarks broadcast on September 22 on Imedi television, Vladimir Chkhikvishvili, Russia's ambassador to Georgia, argued that "it is hard for the peacekeepers to do anything physically . . . [t]hat is why I would not blame them in this case."
The Kremlin sent Valeri Kenyaikin, Russia's chief negotiator on South Ossetian issues, to Tbilisi on September 22 to negotiate with both sides.
Meanwhile, the South Ossetian leadership is blaming Georgia for the shelling. De facto Foreign Minister Murat Dzhioyev told the Russian news agency RIA Novosti on September 21 that the territory would withdrawal from the Joint Control Commission (JCC), the quadripartite OSCE body which tracks the situation in the conflict zone, if Georgia did not apologize for "this provocation."
However, Dzhioyev's colleague, Boris Chochiyev, the South Ossetian co-chairman of the Joint Control Commission and special affairs minister of the unrecognized republic, told Interfax-AVN that the South Ossetian delegation would attend the next planned JCC meeting, scheduled for September 27-29 in the Russian city of Vladikavkaz. The shelling of Tskhinvali, Chochiyev said, had not been confirmed yet by either peacekeepers or OSCE monitors.
Georgia has flatly denied any involvement in the incident, with Khaindrava terming the perpetrators "enemies of Georgia and idiots" in September 21 remarks to local media. Khaindrava also rebutted South Ossetian claims that Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili's surprise visit to Georgian villages north of Tskhinvali on September 20 had touched off the trouble, noting that it would be "surprising" if the Georgian defense minister did not take an interest in heavy military equipment in the South Ossetian conflict zone.
"The next step is to start a war, as our opponents probably plan," Khaindrava said in a September 21 interview with Imedi television. "[How] could the newest military hardware get into the region? How did it get there? Obviously, we will put this question to our Russian colleagues because there is no other way than the Roki tunnel [on the Georgian-Russian border]. How can the peacekeeping forces led by Russia simply stay in the conflict zone, look at these outrageous incidents and do nothing?"
The US, a key Georgian ally, has urged both Russia and Georgia to exercise moderation in its response to the crisis. In a September 22 statement, State Department spokesperson Sean McCormack urged Russia "in respect of Georgia's territorial integrity, to refrain from support of the unrecognized South Ossetian leadership" and to "help avoid further provocations on both sides." Georgia, meanwhile, was encouraged "to act quickly to fulfill their commitments and take required actions under existing international agreements."
In remarks to reporters on September 22, Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli stressed that, despite the shelling, he wanted to pursue plans for a meeting with South Ossetian separatist leader Eduard Kokoity, originally slotted for sometime in late September.
"Such a meeting would have been very important if it had been held earlier. I think it might have prevented the incidents yesterday and the day before," Noghaideli told Georgian journalists. "But it seems that the de-facto leadership in Tskhinvali has no interest in ruling out acts of provocation and calming down the situation. Nevertheless, we, for our part, will do our utmost for a peaceful settlement of the conflict. That is why it is essential that such a meeting takes place."
Exact plans for such a meeting, however, remain outstanding.
Even before the shelling, tensions had been running high between the de facto South Ossetian leadership and the Georgian government. South Ossetia claimed that it was deliberately excluded from a July conference in the Black Sea port city of Batumi in which President Saakashvili's peace initiative for the territory was announced.
The peace program envisioned by Saakashvili's government relays heavily on cooperation between Georgia, Russia, South Ossetia and the rest of the international community. But analysts in Tbilisi now say that, after the shelling incident, they are skeptical that the plan is realistic for Georgia.
"It is clear that Russia continues to incorporate South Ossetia. They are doing it quite openly now, ignoring international opinion," Dr. Alexander Rondeli, president of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies, said. "[International organizations] say they are helping, that it could be worse. But how could it be worse? Russia is taking [South Ossetia] in front of the whole world."
Molly Corso is a freelance reporter and photographer based in Tbilisi.