South Caucasus: From Words to War

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Not a new conflict. Georgian sniper in South Ossetia, September 2004
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On the Escalation Between Georgia and South Ossetia, August 2008

Vladimir Putin’s decision of April 16, 2008 to establish direct links with the breakaway regions in Georgia have led to an escalation of the situation in South Ossetia. Recent developments have jeopardised the fledgling peace process and increased the odds of military action from both the Georgian and South Ossetian side.

Regular exchanges of fire, kidnapping and murder by unspecified armed groups, and the shelling of administrative buildings and private houses has recently become a norm in the region, not an exception.

However, on August 1, 2008,  the South Ossetian region and neighbouring Georgian villages witnessed a new cycle of violence when, as Alana Gagloeva from the South Ossetian side stated to the Georgian television station Rustavi2, six people were killed and fourteen injured as the result of an attack on the South Ossetian capital Tskinvali.

The spokesman of Georgia’s Ministry of the Interior, Shota Utiashvili, said that earlier on Friday South Ossetian forces had blown up a Georgian police car with a mine, killing six and injuring fourteen policemen.

A new cycle of violence

South Ossetian president Eduard Kokoity has been warning that his troops were ready to protect his country’s “sovereignty” with support from Russia and the so-called “Boeviks” (outlaw military men) from Northern Caucasian Republics.

In other developments more than 800 children and women have been evacuated to Russia’s Northern Ossetian Republic. In Tbilisi this, together with the threat from Abkhaz and Kazak paramilitary groups to provide military support to South Ossetia, was seen as a sign of worse to come.

Ever since its 2003 Rose Revolution, Georgia has been actively seeking to restore control over South Ossetia. To achieve this the Georgian government has set up a temporary administration of South Ossetia headed by Dmitry Sanakoev in the Georgian controlled village of Kurta, near Tskinvali. Putin’s decision to establish direct links with the breakaway region has further escalated the situation and has led to an increasingly war-like rhetoric between Russia and Georgia, Georgia and its breakaway regions, and Russia and the West.

Georgia's territorial integrity

Russia has been repeatedly warning that it would resort to military action should Georgia attempt to use force to restore it territorial integrity.
Temur Iakobashvili, Georgia’s state minister for reintegration, declared on August 7, 2008 that Russia was undermining its role as mediator and peacekeeper in the region since great amount of arms and military equipment had been illegally imported from Russia. According to the minister, the situation has  become uncontrollable for all sides, and the Ossetians did not even consult the Russians before resorting to military action.

Mr. Iakobashvili stressed the willingness of the Georgian government to get back to the negotiating table, yet he also made it clear that, if necessary, Georgia would take military action.

Ever since August 1, 2008 the situation in the region has been very alarming. On August 7, Georgia confirmed that near the village of Avnevi one of its armoured vehicles had been attacked from the South Ossetian side with a rocket-propelled grenade and that three servicemen had been injured in the incident.

Russia's role in the region

On the same day the Russian negotiator for South Ossetian affairs, Yuri Popov, denied that there was any agreement with Tbilisi over the format of negotiations and suggested, somewhat confusingly, that should Tskinvali reject direct talks with Tbilisi, he would have to hold separate meetings with both parties.

Mr. Kokoity has clearly stated that the Ossetians are ready to drive the Georgian militia from the region, while Georgia continues to accuse Russia for its support of the separatists. Russia, on the other hand, is deeply hostile towards Georgia’s aspirations to join NATO and has warned Georgia not to concentrate its forces close to the breakaway regions.

Finally, on August 7, 2008, Mr. Kokoity declared war on Georgia. The Georgian village of Avnevi as well as Georgian military check-points have been subject to heavy shelling.

It is up to the international community to put pressure on Russian, the Georgian and South Ossetian parties to de-escalate the situation as soon as possible. Only this could avoid the recurrence of the bloody events of early 1990s in Abkhazia and South Ossetia – events which left the entire South Caucasian regions highly unstable and resulted in hundreds of thousands internally displaced persons in Georgia.