As a tenuous ceasefire remains in effect in Georgia's separatist region of South Ossetia, the war of words between Tbilisi and Moscow is escalating. Russian leaders are accusing Georgia of stoking conflict, while prominent politicians in Tbilisi say the country must "get ready to repel Russian aggression."
Earlier in 2004, it appeared that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and Russian leader Vladimir Putin had established a good working relationship, raising hopes for the settlement of various long-standing bilateral disputes. At one point, the two leaders expressed a desire to conclude a comprehensive bilateral pact in the near future. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. But the brewing confrontation in South Ossetia put an abrupt stop to the Georgian-Russian thaw. Putin pointedly announced that he will not make a state visit to Georgia any time soon. "We discussed this possibility with [our] Georgian colleagues; however, given the tense situation [in South Ossetia], I believe such a trip would be inappropriate," the Interfax news agency quoted Putin as saying.
Putin and other Russian leaders hold Saakashvili's administration responsible for the hostilities in South Ossetia this summer. Putin, in his first comments August 18 on the Ossetian situation, intimated that Saakashvili was making the same "foolish" mistakes committed by one of his predecessors, the late Zviad Gamsakhurdia, whose tenure as Georgian president in the early 1990s was marred by separatist conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The current tension in South Ossetia is "a repetition of what happened in the 1990s," Putin said. The Russian president called on the Georgian leadership to negotiate, rather than use force to resolve the current crisis.
Georgian leaders bristled at Putin's comments. Parliament Speaker Nino Burjanadze, in an interview broadcast August 20 on Georgian state television, suggested it was hypocritical of Putin to call on Georgian leaders to embrace talks when Russia continues to employ force in its own renegade region, Chechnya. "When he [Putin] tells us that we [Georgia] should learn to negotiate ... why is he not holding talks with the Chechens?" Burjanadze said.
Both Abkhazia and South Ossetia established de facto independence in the early 1990s after emerging as the winners of armed conflicts against Georgian government forces. Georgian political experts contend that the two regions could not have secured victory without the political and military support of Russia. Russian peacekeepers maintain a presence in both regions.
Saakashvili has often stated that Georgia's territorial reintegration is his top political priority. Burjanadze and others in Tbilisi have invoked the United Nations charter and international law in defending what they say are actions designed solely to reestablish the central government's authority across all of Georgia.
Russian officials, meanwhile, assert that Moscow has a legitimate interest in South Ossetia. "One should not forget that most residents of South Ossetia are citizens of Russia, and we [the Russian government] should care about them," Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov told journalists August 17.
Georgian officials assert that Russian peacekeepers are siding with South Ossetian militia. Moscow denies the Georgian allegation, and Putin has suggested that Russia could mediate a solution to the present crisis. It is clear, however, Georgian leaders do not trust Russia to act as a political broker. Tbilisi has advocated an international conference on South Ossetia. Such a conference, if ever convened, would dilute Russian influence over the conflict-resolution process. Russian diplomats have resolutely opposed an international conference. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov maintained that "settlement mechanisms do exist," citing the South Ossetian Joint Control Commission and the peacekeeping force.
In Moscow, anti-Georgian sentiment -- not only in policy-making circles, but also among the general public -- appears to be spreading. Much of the existing ire is aimed at Saakashvili, who is increasingly being viewed in Russia as a trouble-maker. An especially vitriolic commentary published August 20 in the Izvestiya daily accused Saakashvili of totalitarian practices.
The same day, a Russian MP Mikhail Markelov, who recently traveled to South Ossetia on a personal fact-finding mission, made an inflammatory allegation that Chechen militants were active in the region, effectively serving as allies of Georgian government forces. Markelov claimed in an interview with Ekho Moskvy radio that while in South Ossetia he "heard [intercepted radio] conversations ... conducted in Chechen."
He went on to claim that Chechen fighters had moved into South Ossetia from the nearby Pankisi Gorge. Russia has often accused Georgia of providing Chechen fighters with sanctuary in the Pankisi area. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Markelov could not substantiate his statements, other than to say; "I think that this information will soon be corroborated."
At the same time, polling results a published by the Itar-Tass news agency August 20 showed that two-thirds of participating Russians expressed "mistrust" for Saakashvili. Just under half of those participating in a similar survey two months ago said they mistrusted Saakashvili, Itar-Tass said.
Asked if Russian military forces should intervene in South Ossetian and Abkhazian affairs, 18 percent favored direct Russian military involvement; another 19 percent said Russia should provide military assistance to South Ossetia and Abkhazia; 34 percent said Russian troops should only participate if they are part of a peacekeeping force; and 22 percent opposed any form of intervention. The remainder expressed no opinion. Itar-Tass provided no information on the poll's methodology, or its margin for error.
Putin has sought to downplay the notion that the Georgia-South Ossetian tension could evolve into a conflict between Tbilisi and Moscow. "It is not like this, and it cannot be like this," Putin said during his August 18 news conference.
Yet existing trends, evaluated within the context of recent history, has some Georgian politicians cautioning that the chances of an armed conflict between Georgia and Russia are rising. In an interview broadcast by Imedi television on August 24, Givi Targamadze, the chairman of the Georgian parliament's Defense and Security Committee, said that Russian troops were prepared to launch a strike into Georgian territory, but the raid was preempted by Saakashvili's decision August 19 to withdraw Georgian units from strategic positions in South Ossetia. Targamadze said the Georgian government possessed secretly taped video of Russian military preparations along the Georgian-Russian frontier.
"From now on, our whole strategy will be built on the notion that the army, the Georgian armed forces, should get ready to repel Russian aggression," Targamadze said. In an interview published by the French daily Liberacion on August 24, Saakashvili echoed concern that Georgia and Russia stood on the brink of conflict, adding that "the [Georgian] population must be prepared" for the possibility of war.
Igor Torbakov is a freelance journalist and researcher who specializes in CIS political affairs. He holds an MA in History from Moscow State University and a PhD from the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences. He was Research Scholar at the Institute of Russian History, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow, 1988-1997; a Visiting Scholar at the Kennan Institute, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington DC, 1995, and a Fulbright Scholar at Columbia University, New York, 2000. He is now based in Istanbul, Turkey.