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. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. 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. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. 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. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
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. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
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. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
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
Theresa Freese, a graduate of The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, is a freelance journalist and political analyst who has been conducting research on unresolved conflicts in the South Caucasus since 2003.