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Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Discord between Georgia and Russia intensifies

The rebel leader of Georgia’s separatist region of South Ossetia has threatened to fight the Georgian army if it tried to disband his militia. Meanwhile, Russian military exercises on the Georgian border are further fueling tensions, as Georgia is accusing the Kremlin of backing the South Ossetian militia.

By Molly Corso for Eurasianet (26/07/06)

Relations between Tbilisi and Moscow are rapidly souring in the face of growing tensions over the breakaway region of South Ossetia and, now, a Georgian-administered gorge within the separatist conflict zone of Abkhazia.

In recent days, the Georgian government has depicted recent Russian military exercises in the North Caucasus as an attempt to exert psychological pressure on Georgia over South Ossetia, and has charged that Russia stands behind a rebel militia leader in the Kodori Gorge who has defied demands from Tbilisi to disarm.

While regional experts say that they are hopeful that Moscow is more intent on frightening the Georgian government than actually starting an armed conflict, some express concern that President Mikhail Saakashvili’s government could respond rashly to what is perceived as veiled threats from the Kremlin.

On 22 July, at the height of tensions between Georgia and Russia over South Ossetia, the former presidential representative to the Kodori Gorge, Emzari Kvitsiani, declared that he was "fed up" with insults from the central government, and threatened to attack Georgian troops if the government sends soldiers to disband his militia, a group, known as Monadire or "Hunter," which formerly operated under the auspices of the Ministry of Defense.

The Georgian government has reacted strongly to Kvitsiani and has pointedly accused Moscow of arming the militia to incite rebellion in the gorge. According to Parliament Speaker Nino Burjanadze, Kvitsiani has met with members of the de facto leadership in Abkhazia as well as the commander of the Russian peacekeeping troops in Abkhazia. President Mikhail Saakashvili has ruled out any negotiations with the rebel leader or his band, remarking in a televised statement on 24 July that the only negotiations would be "what cell they want in Tbilisi prison number 5."

In an interview with television station Rustavi-2 that same day, Giorgi Targamadze, chairman of the parliamentary committee on defense and national security, went on to cast Kvitsiani as a traitor controlled by Moscow. "This is a classic example of betraying one’s own nation. He has no clear motive," he said. "All day today he could not state his demands, because otherwise he would have to say that he is acting on the orders recently given to him by the Russians. The words - I am a traitor of my country - are written on his forehead."

Meanwhile, both Moscow and the separatist Abkhaz leadership in Sokhumi have said that they are watching the situation closely. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated on 25 July that a Georgian military convoy containing "30 Kamaz-type trucks, 18 Niva off-road cars and 4 UAZ-type vehicles" and headed by Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili and Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili had moved through a Russian peacekeepers’ observation post en route to the gorge "despite the attempts of the peacekeepers to obstruct the illegal actions of the Georgian side." A spokesperson for Georgia’s defense ministry told EurasiaNet that she could find no one to comment.

At a news conference on 25 July, however, Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili denied that Defense Minister Okruashvili was in the Kodori Gorge, though confirmed that Interior Minister Merabishvili had traveled there, according to an English-language brief posted on the news site Civil.ge. Bezhuashvili stated that Interior Ministry troops were within the vicinity of the gorge, but did not reveal specifics. He also "categorically" rejected the claim that Georgia was preparing a military action within Kodori Gorge. "I want to categorically rule out any military operation [in the Kodori Gorge]," Bezhuashvili said. "I also want to categorically rule out any actions on the territory which is controlled by the so-called Abkhaz authorities."

Abkhazia’s separatist leadership has stated that it will interpret the presence of Georgian troops in the gorge as a violation of its 1994 cease-fire agreement with Georgia.

Meanwhile, as attentions focus on Abkhazia and the Kodori Gorge, a reported 6,000 Russian soldiers with tanks and other military equipment located to the north of the Georgian border for training exercises are also adding to tensions. In comments widely published in the Georgian media, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov stated that the Caucasus Border exercises were "trainings" for possible deployment into South Ossetia. According to these reports, Ivanov assigned Georgia as the military’s "enemy" during the drills.

During a 24 July interview on Rustavi-2 television, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili admonished Ivanov for his comments, describing his remarks as "scandalous statements and threats." Tbilisi has also repeated its official position that it will not engage in another armed conflict in South Ossetia or Abkhazia.

According to Tamara Pataria, a program director at the Caucasus Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development, recent events have only intensified the need for the international community to act as a buffer between Tbilisi and Moscow. Russia, Pataria argued, is using everything at its disposal to "frighten" Georgia back into its sphere of influence.

"Russia cannot use this as a long-term pressure. The Georgian government should focus on concrete responses for each problem," she said. But she added that while tension is high, international pressure could force the parties back to dialogue. "International partners should be included in the negotiation process between Russia and Georgia."

Tensions soared between South Ossetia’s separatist leadership and Tbilisi on 9 July when the head of the region’s de facto security council, Oleg Albarov, was killed by a car bomb. Another bombing on 14 July killed two civilians. Officials in the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, have repeatedly blamed Georgia for the incidents, and the Russian Federal Security Service has accused the Georgian government of attempting to "destabilize" the region before starting an armed attack.

The Georgian government has denied any involvement, and has described Moscow’s 8 July closure of its Zemo Larsi border crossing with Georgia in favor of the Roki Tunnel in breakaway South Ossetia as an attempt to redraw international borders. On Friday, 21 July, responding to the situation in South Ossetia, Georgia’s minister of defense, Irakli Okruashvili, stressed the country’s commitment to peace. "We want normal neighborly relations with Russia," he said on Rustavi-2. "Russia should be interested in the existence of a strong state as its neighbor and we will try to prove it."

The Georgian government has presented parliament’s 18 July resolution calling for the removal of Russian peacekeepers from Abkhazia and South Ossetia as a firm step in that direction.

The government has also stepped up its campaign for support from international allies. Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli traveled to Brussels on 25 July for meetings about an "intensified dialogue" with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and discussions with European Commission Vice-President Franco Frattini, the news site Civil.ge reported.

On 24 July, Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili underlined the role of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in regulating the South Ossetian conflict during a joint news conference in Tbilisi with Ambassador Bertrand de Crombrugghe, head of the Belgian mission to the OSCE.

A thirteen-member delegation from the OSCE is visiting the conflict zone from 25-26 July. In remarks to reporters, Ambassador de Crombrugghe called for all parties to continue the dialogue process, but stressed that South Ossetia’s future is with Georgia. "You can have self-determination without having independence," he said. "We would also like to point out to [the South Ossetians] that they have wonderful opportunities ahead as a part of Georgia."

However, some Georgian analysts worry that President Saakashvili’s government is nonetheless reacting too quickly to Russia’s statements on and perceived game plan in South Ossetia. Given the state of affairs in both separatist regions, the government needs to make sure that it thinks before it acts, commented Irakli Menagharishvili, director of Tbilisi’s Strategic Research Center and a former foreign minister.

"The official response from Tbilisi is in line with the official plan, but the definite steps being taken are not always in line with their official statements," he said. "I think that in a situation when it is clear that Russia is antagonizing Georgia, the government should react more carefully. It should respond more conservatively so it is not goaded into action. That has happened before, in the early 1990s and the result is well known."

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