On November 16, Georgian media reported that Ossetian checkpoints at the Georgian village of Perevi were placed under Russian command. According to Shota Utiashvili, a spokesperson for the Georgian Ministry of Internal Affairs, the return of Russian forces occurred after EU representatives urged Moscow to take action to foster stability in Perevi.
French President Nicholas Sarkozy told journalists on November 15 that the containment of Ossetian militia was a sign of Russian willingness to cooperate with the international community on the Georgia issue. "This reassures me that [Russian President Dmitri] Medvedev is a partner with whom we must maintain a dialogue," Sarkozy said during a news conference in Washington.
At the same time, the French president underscored that, in accordance with the ceasefire pact he brokered between Russia and Georgia in August, Russian troops ultimately must leave both Perevi and Akhalgori, a mixed Georgian-Ossetian town 60 kilometers from the Georgian capital of Tbilisi.
Perevi, a tiny village near the Soviet-era administrative border of South Ossetia, is considered by both Georgia and the international community as a part of Georgia proper. Roughly 200 kilometers from Tbilisi, the village is the last Georgian controlled settlement before the South Ossetian Java district.
Local residents and officials told EurasiaNet that prior to the August war, the village was not considered part of the conflict zone and, unlike other border villages in the Kartli region, never experienced any skirmishes between Ossetians and Georgians after the 1991 war.
That abruptly changed in August when Russian troops moved into the area, taking territory inside Georgia proper and setting up a checkpoint at Perevi. According to locals, as of November 14, three checkpoints - two Ossetian and one Russian - controlled movement into and out of the village. While local residents were permitted to travel, Ossetian militia reportedly refused entry to peacekeepers and non-local traffic.
Currently a mixed group of Georgian regular police and Special Forces from the Interior Ministry stand guard at Jria, a Georgian controlled village roughly 500 meters from the first Ossetian-Russian checkpoint. According to Utiashvili, not more than 50 men are stationed at the village. Journalists from EurasiaNet noted at least a dozen armed men in camouflage uniforms at a makeshift headquarters sandwiched between a field and a small house in the village. Several local police officers with automatic rifles were also present on November 14.
"As long as Russians and Ossetians are in Perevi, they [Georgian forces] will be [in Jria]," Utiashvili said.
European monitors, sent to Georgia as part of the ceasefire agreement, are also supposed to patrol the area, but villagers interviewed could not recall seeing them. Steve Bird, a spokesperson for the monitors, told EurasiaNet that they had not been to the checkpoint for several days although they kept "in contact" with the Ossetians and villagers by telephone.
Utiashvili went on to emphasize that Georgia's acceptance of Russian forces in Perevi, which is located in the Georgian region of Imereti, was grudging at best. He noted that in restraining Ossetian militia in the village, the Russians have only "done part of the job," adding that Tbilisi continued to insists that Russian forces leave at the earliest feasible opportunity.
Two days after the Ossetians reportedly left the village, local officials reported that few Georgians who departed in early November are now willing to return home. Nodar Abjandadze, head of the local administration in Sachkere, the administrative center for Imereti region, told EurasiaNet that many still fear the Ossetians will eventually come back.
There are no official figures for how many people have left the village; according to Abjandadze at least 40 children from Perevi are now attending school in Chala, a village several kilometers away.
Locals also reported that villagers from Jria have also fled since the Ossetians took over the checkpoint.
Abjandadze noted that there have not been any "incidents" between the local population and the Ossetians or Russians but the situation is still tense.
According to Mikheil Shukakidze, a teacher at the Perevi School, although the Ossetians have not threatened anyone in the village the situation is "not pleasant."
He noted that approximately one-quarter of the village's population had fled, many in August, followed by a substantial number in early November. Shukakidze expressed concern that the Ossetians were intent on pursuing an ethnic cleansing strategy in the village. "I will not go anywhere," he said. "If I leave ... they [Ossetians] will also take the village and that will create more problems. ... They want us to leave."
Molly Corso is a freelance journalist based in Tbilisi.