As Tskhinvali announces its withdrawal from the international commission charged with monitoring the peace in South Ossetia, tensions are again escalating with Georgia over the demand that a South Ossetian soldier who wounded an ethnic Georgian be extradited to Georgia for prosecution. Meanwhile, Tbilisi's stringent economic blockade of the self-declared republic appears to be souring public opinion against any form of cooperation with Georgia.
The incident occurred on June 22 when Tamar Gambashidze, a 70-year-old Georgian woman, received a head wound during apparent military exercises by South Ossetian forces near the Georgian village of Argveti. Initial press reports indicated that Gambashidze was grazed by a stray bullet, but the Georgian government has stated that she was hit by an exploding heavy shell. Reports also differ on the extent of Gambashidze's injuries, but the incident has been seized on by Tbilisi as an indication of South Ossetia's disregard for a peaceful solution to their territorial dispute with Georgia.
At a news conference on Tuesday, Interior Minister Irakly Okruashvili stated that he personally would lead an expedition of special forces into South Ossetia to apprehend Gambashdize's assailant if the individual was not extradited to Georgia by South Ossetian authorities by Thursday, June 24.
"[W]e are not going to put up with the brazen steps the authorities of South Ossetia have been taking," Georgia's Imedi TV reported Okruashvili as saying. "Today's incident clearly shows that an alarming situation is taking shape there."
Authorities in Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian capital, have yet to issue a response. On June 21, the self-declared South Ossetian government announced that it was withdrawing from the quadripartite Joint Control Commission charged with monitoring the peace in South Ossetia, Interfax reported. The commission had been scheduled to meet on June 15-16 in Tbilisi, but Tskhinvali had requested a "neutral" site for the summit. For now, South Ossetian authorities appear to be taking steps of their own to ward off any future Georgian incursion.
On Tuesday, some 2,000 South Ossetian police forces took part in training exercises aimed at combating terrorist attacks and handling natural and man-made disasters. A source in the South Ossetian Interior Ministry told Interfax that the June 22 session was being conducted with Georgia in mind.
"We have to do it," the source said. "Georgia still maintains illegal police posts in the conflict zone and keeps troops on the border with South Ossetia. Moreover, reconnaissance flights of Georgian helicopters over the republic have become more frequent lately."
In recent days, Tbilisi has maintained a steady stream of demands and accusations related to the South Ossetian conflict zone. On June 15, Georgian Conflict Resolutions Minister Giorgi Khaindrova demanded that Russian peacekeepers leave South Ossetia since "they do not wish to perform their functions." Moscow, arguing that the 1994 cease-fire agreement specifies Russia as a guarantor of security in South Ossetia, rejected the demand three days later.
"The Georgian authorities are intentionally vilifying the Russian peace-keepers deployed in the Georgia-South Ossetian conflict zone," said a statement from the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Khaindrava has stated that peacekeepers should only be stationed in areas where Georgians and South Ossetian populations come into contact, and should not be deployed in the neighboring Gori district, a part of Georgia proper. Georgia also wants peacekeepers to monitor the Roki Pass, a route to Russia that Tbilisi charges is used to shuttle contraband and weapons into South Ossetia.
Proposals for revisions in the peacekeepers' mission were expected to be discussed at the meeting of the Joint Control Commission, now tentatively slotted to take place in the Russian city of Vladikavkaz. Delegates to the meeting are also expected to discuss Georgian claims that a convoy of some 160-170 trucks loaded with weapons entered South Ossetia from Russia. The OSCE later issued a statement that it had found "no evidence" of any military vehicles in the Tskhinvali area, but Tbilisi has stood by its claim.
The meeting, which involves Georgia, Russia, the Russian republic of North Ossetia, and South Ossetia, was convened at Georgia's request. "We hope it will help to have a frank discussion of the situation there and to tap solutions of the problems that have arisen there of late," ITAR-TASS reported Khaindrava as saying on June 18.
Meanwhile, pressure appears to be increasing in Moscow for a more decisive resolution of the crisis. On June 16, the Russian daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta reported the chairperson of the Duma committee on CIS affairs as saying that the "overwhelming majority of deputies have spoken out in support of the most decisive measures by Russia's president to defend the strategic and critically important Russian interests in this region." Eduard Kokoity, the de facto president of South Ossetia, had earlier turned to Russia with a request that Moscow expedite the territory's demand for inclusion within the Russian Federation.
So far, Georgia's recent offers of humanitarian aid, fertilizer and improved railway links have done little to lessen that desire, Boris Chochiev , the South Ossetian minister for special affairs, told EurasiaNet in a June 11 interview.
Economic development has been sparse in this remote mountainous region since the war with Georgia ended in 1992, and Mikheil Saakashvili's crackdown on suspected smuggling operations in the territory has simply pinched pockets further.
"They want to give us pensions, but they have destroyed our economy with the blockade," Boris Chochiev, the South Ossetian minister for special affairs, told EurasiaNet in a June 11 interview.
Residents of South Ossetia have depended largely on either trade with Georgia in Russian contraband goods or on agricultural work for their livelihoods. With the establishment of Georgian military checkpoints to control smuggling from South Ossetia into Georgia proper, Tbilisi has effectively imposed a stranglehold on the region's lifeline. The market at Ergneti, estimated to supply up to 30 percent of Georgia's fuel and flour supplies, now stands largely empty. Soldiers manning the last Georgian checkpoint on the road to Tskhinvali declare as contraband any potatoes or tomatoes found on passengers traveling via mini-bus from Tbilisi.
Chochiev claimed that prices for food products have increased by 40 percent since the start of the blockade in April. Some villages have run out of bread and wheat already, he said.
"Under [ex-Georgian President Eduard] Shevardnadze we believed that a peaceful solution was possible," said Chochiev. "Tbilisi talks about peace but isn't working for it,"
Attempts by the Georgian government to distribute humanitarian food aid so far have been firmly rebuffed by South Ossetia. On June 16, authorities refused to allow Georgian Agriculture Minister Davit Shervashidze to make donations of flour to local residents.
"The majority of local residents are avoiding contact with our mission," Shervashidze told journalists, the Georgian television channel Mze reported. "They seem to have been brainwashed to such an extent that they are rejecting any assistance. In fact, they are being terrorized."
Fertilizer deliveries have met with greater success Saakashvili has even earned the moniker of "Susukishvili" (from the Georgian word, "susuki," for fertilizer) in Tskhinvali -- but Chochiev stated that South Ossetia's 14,000 pensioners have no need for Georgia's 14-lari (about $7.24) a monthly pension
Some local residents have indicated otherwise.
"I took the risk because I am in desperate need," one elderly Ossetian, who accepted a Georgian pension, told Mze. As Russian passport-holders, South Ossetians also receive Russian ruble-denominated monthly pensions of roughly $50. On June 16, Lado Chipashvili, the Georgian minister of labor, health and social security, paid pensions to about 24 ethnic South Ossetians, the Georgian channel reported.
Aside from pensions and fertilizers, Tbilisi has also offered to rebuild and reopen the rail line linking Tskhinvali with Tbilisi, a train line that has been closed since 1991.
The Georgian government will also pay for more than 120 children from South Ossetia to spend two weeks at the Black Sea resort of Chakvi in Ajaria, a region that the Saakashvili administration hopes will serve as a model for resolving the conflict over South Ossetia.
The Georgian media have claimed that there is growing support for Saakashvili in the breakaway republic, but Murat Dzhioev, South Ossetia's de facto foreign minister, disputed the veracity of such reports. "That's Georgian propaganda," Dzhioev said.
For now, President Saakashvili's offers appear to have effected little change. "War is a possibility," Chochiev said. "South Ossetia is not Ajaria,"
Daan van der Schriek is a freelance journalist based in Tbilisi.