Even though a preliminary agreement to resolve the Georgia crisis is in place, hostilities continue in the embattled Caucasus state. Evidence is mounting that Russia, with support from local South Ossetian paramilitaries, is intent on creating a no-man's land separating Georgia proper from the separatist region of South Ossetia.
Georgian and Russian officials agreed to an EU-sponsored ceasefire program on August 12, but by all accounts the agreement is being tenuously observed. Georgian officials and Western diplomats voiced alarm over reports of lootings and killings taking place in villages within Georgia proper, around the strategic hub of Gori, not far from the South Ossetian border. Observers from Human Rights Watch, the international rights organization, reported seeing Georgian villages in flames. The apparent intention of the Russian/South Ossetian scorched-earth policy was to make the area in the immediate vicinity of South Ossetia uninhabitable for the foreseeable future.
"We have credible reports of villages being burned, of shootings, of killings of innocent people and civilians," said Matthew Bryza, a top US diplomat trying to defuse the Georgian crisis. Bryza called on the Kremlin to ensure that the Russian military and its proxies refrained from violating international law.
Georgian officials also claimed that Russian troops had engaged in looting in Gori. On August 13, a column of Russian military vehicles moved out of Gori, heading southward toward Tbilisi, before stopping a few miles outside of the city. Russian troops later set up a checkpoint on the road.
A top government official, Eka Zghuladze, insisted that capital Tbilisi was not in immediate danger of attack. "There are no grounds for panic," she said.
EurasiaNet talked to Tariel Tabashidze, a driver who visited Gori on August 13 and came in contact with Russian soldiers there. "We spoke peacefully," Tabashidze said. Tabashidze added that he saw another group of Russian soldiers looting a grocery kiosk. He heard some sporadic shooting and a few remaining locals shared frightening reports of violence conducted by Ossetian and Cossack mercenaries. He met with the remaining staff of Gori's key hospital, which in the past few days has turned into emergency hub for scores of military and civilian victims of war.
Medical personnel described a chaotic scene, as civilians scrambled to flee. "We heard sirens and shooting and hurried to leave the area," one hospital worker said "Outside Gori there were people on the road looking for cars to take them away."
The Russian leadership denies any wrongdoing on the part of the Russian military. In a commentary published August 13 in the British newspaper the Financial Times, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov insisted that Moscow's actions in Georgia constituted "a proportionate response to an unprovoked assault on it citizens." He added that the Kremlin respected Georgia's sovereignty, and that it has" "no intention of annexing or occupying any part of Georgia."
Lavrov wrote that Russia was committed to following through on the EU plan in the effort to forge a durable peace. "Over the next few days, on the condition that Georgia refrains from military activity and keeps its forces out of the region, Russia will continue to take the diplomatic steps required to consolidate this temporary cessation to hostilities," Lavrov wrote.
With Russian armor continuing to menace Tbilisi, however, it remained unclear what Russia's peace terms were. Lavrov and other Russian leaders have sent signals that Moscow's minimum requirement is the permanent separation of the break-away territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia.
Amid uncertainty surrounding Russia's intentions, there were multiple signs of a hardening of the US and EU stances toward Moscow. The United States on August 13 announced the cancellation of joint military exercises with Russia that had been scheduled for later in August in the Sea of Japan. US officials also announced that American military aircraft and naval vessels would be used to deliver humanitarian assistance in the coming days. The Pentagon also announced a military assessment team would arrive in Tbilisi in the coming days to determine the needs for quickly rebuilding the Georgian military.
Meanwhile, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband suggested the European Union should reassess relations with Russia. "The sight of Russian tanks in Gori, Russian tanks in Senaki, the Russian blockade of Poti, the Georgian port, are a chilling reminder of times that I think we had hoped had gone by."
German Chancellor Angela Merkel came out strongly in support of Georgia, stating that the principle of "the territorial integrity of Georgia are non-negotiable." Merkel is scheduled to hold talks with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on August 15, and German officials have announced that she intends to convey a message that the Georgia crisis "cannot be solved militarily."
Some EU states that were formally part of the Soviet bloc, including Poland, Ukraine and the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, have expressed solidarity with Tbilisi. "There must be some consequences of aggression," said Lithuanian Foreign Minister Petras Vaitiekunas while in Brussels.
Giorgi Lomsadze is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi.