Georgia: Tension again on the rise in South Ossetia

Originally published
Georgia's attempt to promote a negotiated solution to the South Ossetia conflict appears to be stalling, with separatist leaders in Tskhinvali viewing Tbilisi's commitment to peace as insincere. Meanwhile, Georgians living in South Ossetia are growing restive, prompting some local officials to strongly criticize President Mikheil Saakashvili's regional peace plan.
Last summer, mounting tension briefly re-ignited the conflict between Georgian forces and South Ossetian militia. In September of 2004, Saakashvili, during his appearance at the United Nations' General Assembly, launched a public campaign for a negotiated solution, in which economic development would serve as the primary mechanism for lasting peace. In January, he unveiled an initiative that offered South Ossetia broad autonomy under a federation-like political framework. Georgian officials followed up in early July by convening a conference designed to serve as a catalyst for the peace process. During the conference, Georgian officials presented a more detailed draft "road map" for the peace process. But South Ossetian representatives stayed away, and the conference failed to generate the hoped-for good will.

From the start, South Ossetian leaders have been suspicious about the sincerity of Saakashvili's autonomy offer, while not budging from their stated aim of achieving independence. And now, amid another rapid escalation in tension -- fueled in part by Tbilisi's assertion that Russia was behind a February bomb blast in Gori, just outside the Georgian-South Ossetian conflict zone - Tskhinvali is expressing concern about the possibility a resumption of hostilities.

Anatoly Barankevich, the head of the South Ossetian defense forces, claimed that Georgian troops were engaging in menacing activities not far from the separatist region's border, the Russian news agency Interfax-AVN reported July 27. "Georgian troops are holding all kinds of exercises ... that we view as purposeful preparations for combat operations," Barankevich said. On July 26, leaders of South Ossetia and Abkhazia -- Georgia's two break-away territories -- signed a mutual assistance agreement. Eduard Kokoiti, the head of the South Ossetian authority, voiced concern after the signing ceremony that Georgia and international organizations "want to impose on us peaceful initiatives of an aggressive nature," the Abkhaz news agency Apsnypress reported.

Ossetians are not alone in raising questions about the Saakashvili administration's methods. International and Georgian participants in the peace process suggest the Georgian government erred in not consulting Ossetian representatives before making its peace plan public. Tbilisi also may have undermined the Batumi conference's chances of success by apparently making a protocol blunder, as Ossetian leaders contend they never received a formal invitation. Moreover, the selection of Ajara as the conference venue was viewed in Tskhinvali as inappropriate, given that the autonomous republic was brought back under Tbilisi's control in 2004 amid great fanfare.

Jacques Vantomme, an official with the European Commission delegation to Georgia, noted in his speech in Batumi: "What international organizations cannot do is to replace 'direct talks' between parties to a conflict. ... What does it help to reach a negotiated solution for a conflict if you cannot sell the results to your population at home? If you do not wish that your efforts are in vain, you need to find a balance between silent diplomacy and public diplomacy."

One Western official involved in the peace process wondered whether the Georgian government takes the plan "seriously," noting that officials from the ministries of interior and defense did participate in the Batumi conference. "This is strange because, when dealing with Georgian-Ossetian issues, the police and military are top priorities," the official said. State Minister for Conflict Resolution Issues Goga Khaindrava now "finds himself in an isolated position," the official added. "How can [Khaindrava] proceed if he does not have the support from the Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Defense to create a coordinated approach?"

While speaking softly, Georgian leaders continue to wield the proverbial big stick. On July 18, for example, while recognizing that "peace initiatives are being pursued quite actively," Minister of Defense Irakli Okruashvili said: "We have enough equipment, and people trained... to ward off any internal threat that may face Georgia. Naturally, this concerns the two lost territories [Abkhazia and South Ossetia]."

Selling the peace process to Ossetians is only part of the challenge for the Georgian government. Georgians in the conflict zone are, for different reasons, also skeptical about Saakashvili's autonomy offer. Many oppose the peace plan in its current form, saying they are angry, and feel abandoned by Tbilisi.

"Giving autonomy to South Ossetia was a big mistake," Nodar Zhuzhniashvili, the local authority for Georgian villages in the Patara Liakhvi district, said. "Giving them this status is creating a type of environment where they are beginning to feel like an independent country."

Zhuzhniashvili said he and other local leaders were not invited to the Batumi peace conference, and had no say in the development of the Ossetian peace initiatives. "I don't know anything - what they are thinking or are going to do," he said. "I know there is a peace initiative, but I know the Ossetians will never accept it. This is just an initiative - nothing more. If it were a real program, we would be involved," he said.

Economic rehabilitation programs - an integral component of the peace process - are starting up in Georgian-and Ossetian-controlled areas, including a 2.5-million euro initiative by the European Commission, a 700,000-lari project sponsored by the Georgian government, and another 690,000-dollar project developed by the Georgian Social Investment Fund. In addition, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe is planning a Needs Assessment Study that would help guide future projects. Despite this, the political status of South Ossetia and the deteriorating security environment are foremost on residents' minds.

Georgians who reside in the conflict zone complain about a lack of information concerning the government's peace plan. "We only know on television that the Ossetians reject the peace plan, and we are glad because we also reject it," said one man from Eredvi, with support from several villagers. "I don't know what's in the peace plan, but from what I saw on TV it will not work. Just announcing it like this will bring no profit."

Gela Zoziashvili, deputy governor of Shida Kartli, the Georgian province that is responsible for administering Georgian villages within South Ossetia, confirmed that Tbilisi has no formal information strategy in place. He said that conflict zone residents could learn more about Tbilisi's specific peace proposals, "through the mass media or internet." Given the region's poor communications infrastructure, however, Georgian villages have no local internet access.

A member of parliament representing Georgians in the conflict zone, Guram Vakhtangashvili, said the government needs to fill in gaps in the existing peace blueprint, such as addressing the issue of rights protection for Georgians in the envisioned autonomous region. Vakhtangashvili added that the government should do more to involve Georgians in South Ossetia in the peace process. At present, most of his constituents don't understand how Georgian villages in South Ossetia would be administrated under the Saakashvili administration's proposed political arrangement, and many are concerned South Ossetian autonomy would be a stepping stone on the way toward annexation by Russia.

"If Georgia gives full autonomy to Ossetians," the Eredvi villager explained, "Those who can, will leave. Those with no other option will stay. Others will fight."

Residents of villages in the Didi and Patara Liakhvi districts, point to continuing instances of suspected kidnapping and torture of Georgians, as well as an increasing number of complaints about discrimination, as indicators of what life under an autonomous South Ossetia would be like.

Adding to the already "very tense" situation, Levan Khajapuridze, whose family members blocked the main highway linking Tskhinvali to Russia for several weeks after his brother and two cousins were allegedly kidnapped by Ossetians in early June, told EurasiaNet that he is demanding that the bodies be returned, dead or alive. Otherwise, he threatens retaliation. "If they don't give back the bodies, I won't be able to take control over the population," he said. "Locals really can't control themselves any longer."

Shota Utiashvili, an Interior Ministry official, said there is "no" chance that Khajapuridze's kidnapped relatives are still alive, adding that kidnappings and reprisals could fuel broader violence. "There is a risk that hostilities might restart if Ossetians provoke the local villagers too much," Utiashvili said. "In such a case, no Georgian government can remain neutral - if kidnappings and killings continue, it will become a political issue."

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