In the wake of an armed clash in Georgia's separatist-minded territory of South Ossetia, all sides are eschewing conciliatory gestures and are instead embracing aggressive rhetoric.
Accounts of the number killed and injured vary. South Ossetia claims six civilians killed and 22 injured after Georgian forces reportedly fired on and later shelled the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, during the night of August 1-2. Tbilisi, for its part, claims that six civilians and one policeman were injured when South Ossetian forces allegedly shelled four Georgian-controlled villages in the conflict zone.
Tbilisi initially blamed Moscow for the clash, saying Russia seeks to subvert recently intensified international conflict resolution efforts. Tskhinvali, on the other hand, charges that Tbilisi is trying to make a grab for South Ossetia. Separatist leaders vowed to retaliate. "We are not going to put up with this anymore," South Ossetia's de facto interior minister, Mikhail Mindzayev, said in an interview with Media News. "Should another provocation take place, we will strike back at Georgian cities."
South Ossetian separatists have also pledged a general troop mobilization if another clash occurs, and warned that they will seek military assistance from the fellow breakaway region of Abkhazia, as well as from Russia's North Caucasus area, including neighboring North Ossetia. Georgian media sources have reported a build-up of Russian military forces on North Ossetia's border with South Ossetia. The information could not be independently confirmed.
On August 3, South Ossetia's separatist authorities declined to meet with Georgian State Minister for Territorial Integration Temur Iakobashvili for direct talks about the situation in the conflict zone.
Meanwhile, Tbilisi has adopted muscular language of its own. "I want to advise those in Tskhinvali to stop playing war games and to find a better use of their time and review the peace proposals," Georgian peacekeeping operations chief Mamuka Kurashvili said in televised remarks on August 4.
Kurashvili went on to suggest that Russian peacekeepers themselves played a part in the attack in a bid to derail internationally mediated peace talks. A Russia Defense Ministry representative angrily denied the allegation, calling it "provocative, dirty information," the official RIA-Novosti news agency reported.
Other Russian statements have helped stir up troubled waters. On August 2, the Interfax news agency quoted a top military commander as saying Russian Airborne Troops were ready to enter South Ossetia to assist Russian peacekeepers. The next day, a Russian Foreign Ministry statement ominously suggested that "the threat of large-scale military actions between Georgia and South Ossetia is becoming more real."
Such public pronouncements merely fuel the impression in Tbilisi that Russia is not interested in finding a peaceful settlement to the Ossetia issue.
Davit Darchiashvili, chairperson of the Georgian parliament's European Integration Committee, suggested that the flare-up in Ossetia was designed to give fellow breakaway entity Abkhazia an excuse for opting out of European-backed peace talks. "The recent actions of Sukhumi and Tskhinvali come together in one logical chain," he commented.
[Darchiashvili formerly served as the director of the Open Society Georgia Foundation in Tbilisi. OSGF, like EurasiaNet.org, is financed by the Open Society Institute, but the two entities operate separately].
Citing tensions in South Ossetia, de facto Abkhaz President Sergei Bagapsh on August 3 declined an invitation for discussions in Berlin about a peace proposal from the United Nations Secretary General's Group of Friends of Georgia. "Georgia is sending troops to South Ossetia's border. Under such circumstances, we cannot talk either with the Group of Friends or the Georgian side," Bagapsh was quoted as saying on Russian television.
Both South Ossetia and Abkhazia have rejected Georgian peace proposals that hinge on granting broad authority to the two regions within Georgia. Both breakaway regions affirm that their de facto independence is not negotiable.
Darchiashvili's evaluation of the situation is shared by other political observers in Tbilisi. "We have seen a pattern [in which] the rise of tension coincides with a suspension of dialogue, or efforts to renew the talks," said Giorgi Khutsishvili, director of Tbilisi's International Center for Conflict and Negotiation. "Now, when efforts have been stepped up to internationalize the format of engagement, fighting breaks out again."
Political scientist Zurab Abashidze, a former Georgian ambassador to Russia, agrees. The Kremlin, he argues, could use the violence to prompt Tbilisi to back off its campaign to receive a Membership Action Plan from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization by the end of the year. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
"This may seem highly unlikely given Georgia's current leadership and foreign policy goals, but if there is not enough willpower in Tbilisi and tangible support from the West, Georgia may eventually succumb to the pressure," Abashidze said.
But, as always in the South Caucasus, conflict zone disputes are prone to sudden shifts in position. Accordingly, in a twist on earlier Georgian statements, Iakobashvili late on August 4 stated that Russia, which has close ties to the separatist South Ossetian government, has made it clear to Tbilisi that it understands the need for "some type of dialogue."
There has been no official response as yet from Moscow, but analyst Khutsishvili hopes that calmer heads will prevail. "The Georgian government must do its utmost to avoid military confrontation and push for creation of an international mechanism for monitoring the situation in the conflict areas," he said.
Giorgi Lomsadze is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi.