While still emphasizing a desire for dialogue, President Mikheil Saakashvili has warned that any outbreak of armed conflict in South Ossetia could bring Georgia into direct confrontation with Russia. The statement, made even as Tbilisi and Moscow exchange envoys in a bid to negotiate an end to the South Ossetia crisis, marks a sharp departure from declarations made following a recent summit that relations between Russia and Georgia had entered a "new stage" of understanding and cooperation.
During a July 11 rally in Tbilisi to support the government's South Ossetia policy, Saakashvili stated that the "[c]urrent crisis in South Ossetia is not a problem between Georgians and Ossetians. This is a problem between Georgia and Russia."
Saakashvili went on to charge that "certain forces in Russia" are preparing for "aggression against Georgia," the news site Civil Georgia reported. Calling on Putin to "restrain these forces," Saakashvili warned that any armed conflict in South Ossetia would not be a fight between Georgians and Ossetians, but would become "a serious problem between the two countries, Georgia and Russia."
Like Moscow, Tbilisi has been quick to take credit for avoiding a full-scale armed conflict in the territory. "Due to coordinated activities by the Georgian government, international support and because of frequent contact with Russia and the United States, Georgia has avoided the bloody conflict which [South Ossetian leader Eduard] Kokoev and his backers in Russia wanted to launch," Civil Georgia reported Saakashvili as saying upon a July 12 departure for London.
While conceding that tensions in the breakaway territory have relaxed since the July 9 return of all but three of an estimated 38 Georgian hostages, Georgia continues to emphasize what it claims are Russian attempts at a military build-up in South Ossetia. [For background see the EurasiaNet Insight archive]. Late in the afternoon of July 10, according to the president, one Russian ME8 aircraft flew over the Georgian border from Chechnya, an action Saakashvili said he hoped was "an accident," Rustavi2 reported.
The Georgian government has also charged that the Roki Tunnel, a roadway connecting the Russian autonomous republic of North Ossetia with South Ossetia, has been used to move military equipment into the disputed territory. In a July 4 interview with Interfax, Saakashvili declared that Georgia wants to establish a border checkpoint at the tunnel to take control of the travel route.
Despite the situation in the breakaway republic, Saakashvili left Tbilisi for London on July 12, telling reporters that he had decided to continue with the trip in order to bolster international support for Georgia.
Meanwhile, in a July 11 public-relations event apparently designed to reinforce the government's message, Saakashvili, speaking in Ossetian, addressed a rally of "dozens" of ethnic Ossetians held in Tbilisi, the television company Rustavi2 reported. Amid shouts of "Our president is Mikheil Saakashvili!" and "Long live Misha!," participants emphasized their support for the president's desire to reintegrate South Ossetia into Georgia. A similar rally was also held in the Georgian village of Tkviavi near the border with South Ossetia, where protestors urged Saakashvili not to yield to "[South Ossetian President Eduard] Kokoev's provocations," Civil Georgia reported.
At a news briefing in Tbilisi the previous day, Saakashvili had emphasized that "South Ossetia will be reintegrated into Georgia within a year at the latest, without any shots being fired."
Moscow disputes Tbilisi's claims, and continues to maintain that Georgia alone is responsible for the crisis in South Ossetia. Speaking to reporters in the Russian capital on July 11, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov charged that Georgia had "illegally brought into the conflict zone hundreds and thousands of armed forces who do not come under the peacekeepers' control," Interfax Russia reported. Lavrov put the number of these alleged armed forces at "up to 3,000." [For background see the EurasiaNet Insight archive].
A July 10 Russian Foreign Ministry statement claimed that a June 2 agreement by the Joint Control Commission, the quadripartite body charged with preserving the peace in South Ossetia, had addressed the issue of "illegally deployed Georgian military units" and had called on all parties to refrain from "setting up any posts in the conflict zone without the commission's agreement." Russia, Georgia, South Ossetia and North Ossetia all retain representatives on the commission.
Lazrov went on to tell reporters that Russia would be justified in breaking up "illegal formations" in South Ossetia, an action that would no doubt be seen as a provocation by Tbilisi, which views South Ossetia as part of Georgian territory. At the conclusion of his July 2-4 summit with Vladimir Putin, Saakashvili told Interfax that the Kremlin had pledged not to interfere in the country's "internal affairs."
Moscow has also claimed that the June 2 agreement authorized it to ship some 160 missiles into South Ossetia as support for its peacekeeping forces there. Seizure of the shipment by Georgian Interior Ministry forces on July 7 prompted South Ossetian fighters to take roughly 38 Georgian peacekeepers as hostages on July 8. All but three of the hostages have since been released.
Demands for Georgia to return the missiles continue to headline the dispute. Georgia has offered to destroy the missiles, now held in Tbilisi, in the presence of a Russian representative, but Moscow has rejected the proposal.
Meanwhile, opinions differ on the best forum for resolving the stand-off with Russia.
While both sides emphasize their interest in dialogue, no agreement appears to exist on the best structure for the talks. Lavrov stated on July 10 that Moscow was "ready for an emergency meeting of the Joint Control Commission at the highest level," Interfax reported, but Tbilisi has pushed for talks outside of the Commission.
In an apparent reference to Tbilisi's misgivings about the Commission, the Foreign Ministry statement declared that "[a]ny attempts to disrupt the negotiating process taking place in the framework of the Joint Control Commission must be stopped." Nonetheless, a July 10 report in the Russian daily Izvestia quoted Russian National Security Council Chairman Igor Ivanov as saying that the Joint Control Commission could be expected to convene "within the next few days," possibly in Moscow, to discuss the crisis.
For now, greater progress appears to be taking place at the bilateral level. On Sunday, Gela Bezhuashvili, secretary of Georgia's National Security Council, traveled to Moscow for talks with Ivanov about South Ossetia. The preceding day, July 10, the Russian Foreign Ministry's Ambassador for Special Affairs, Lev Mironov, arrived in Tbilisi. The United States has also been active as a mediator in the conflict. US Secretary of State Colin Powell spoke with Russia's Foreign Minister Lavrov on July 10, reportedly, and Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania has held talks with the US ambassador to Georgia, Richard Miles.
Saakashvili has also named Interior Minister Irakli Okruashvili to head a center in the Georgian village of Eredvi in South Ossetia that will reportedly act as a field headquarters of sorts for Georgian efforts aimed at preventing an armed conflict in the territory.
Yet despite the ongoing discussions, negotiations appear to be deadlocked over the reportedly three Georgian peacekeepers still kept in Tskhinvali. At a July 10 news briefing, Georgian Security Minister Gela Bezhuashvili said that South Ossetia had offered to release the three men in exchange for Marek Dudaev, an alleged criminal figure arrested this March in South Ossetia, Civil Georgia reported.