“Mimino” truck driver Rubik Khachikian, no doubt, would be proud: Armenian truck drivers recently came close to securing a breakthrough in the bitter breakaway dispute between Georgia, Russia and the separatist enclave South Ossetia that has bedeviled diplomats for years.
Since June, Georgia has been facing an Armenian-truck traffic jam in its north, where a landslide and flooding clogged the highway leading to its only official border-crossing with Russia. The road is the sole way by land for Armenia to reach Russia, a key economic and diplomatic partner, and its main military ally.
With this trade lifeline blocked, Armenia late last month tried its luck asking Tbilisi for passage through separatist South Ossetia, which Moscow calls an independent state, and Tbilisi Georgian territory occupied by Russia.
The Georgian government proved unexpectedly amenable to the idea, first raised by Armenian Transportation and Communications Minister Gagik Beglarian.
But the Georgian public heavily criticized the proposal. Government critics insisted that allowing transit through the breakaway territory region means capitulation to Russia and violation of the Georgian law on the occupied territories, which bans the transportation of cargo via the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Yet Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili and other proponents of Armenia’s proposal argued that it was in Georgia’s interests to ensure the continued passage of both Armenian and Georgian exports to Russia.
Dismissing the criticism as "hysteria," Kvirikashvili pointed out that using South Ossetia as a backup export route would be temporary.
South Ossetia will keep its army, its de facto president has said, apparently ending a contentious discussion about dissolving the territory's armed forces and subsuming them into the Russian military.
However, South Ossetia's armed forces will remain heavily dependent on their Russian patrons, who are funding a rearmament program that will make Tskhinvali's military the equal of Russian units, de facto president Leonid Tibilov said in an interview with Russian news agency Sputnik.
"The process of arms and equipment modernization of the Republic of South Ossetia will be launched to reach the level of the Russian Defense Ministry's 58th Army," Tibilov said. He added that the Russian military presence in the territory will not be increased: "Regarding an increase in the number of [Russian] military, I can say that the current contingent is capable of solving the tasks, therefore the issue of an expansion… is not on the agenda," he said.
The future of South Ossetia's armed forces emerged as a controversy earlier this year after the de facto defense minister accused some members of parliament of conniving to dissolve the armed forces. The issue of the military is one of the sharpest in the negotiations between Moscow and Tskhinvali over the level of autonomy that the territory will retain.
South Ossetia broke away from Georgia as the Soviet Union was collapsing, and has been propped up by arms and money from Moscow since then. Georgia attempted an ill-fated attack to get the territory back in 2008, and Russia responded by formally recognizing the territory's independence (though very few other countries followed Moscow's lead).
South Ossetia's authorities are fighting among themselves about the future of the country's armed forces, with the territory's de facto defense minister accusing political opponents of wanting to dissolve the military and fully hand over the responsibility for its defense to Russia.
At issue is the implementation of the agreement signed last March by Russian President Vladimir Putin and his de facto South Ossetian counterpart Leonid Tibilov on "alliance and integration" between Russia and South Ossetia, including a "common space of security and defense."
Russia officially recognized South Ossetia as an independent country in 2008, after it fought a war with Georgia over the tiny territory, still recognized by most of the rest of the world as a part of Georgia. Since then, Russia has been formalizing its control over the territory, though only up to a point: a South Ossetian proposal last fall to hold a referendum on joining Russia was quietly ignored by Moscow, which apparently decided it didn't have anything to gain by this particular annexation.
In any case, the March 2015 agreement between Moscow and Tskhinvali called for "particular units of the armed forces of South Ossetia to enter the structure" of the Russian military. But the devil is in the details, and the two sides are now working out legislation on how to implementat the agreement. South Ossetia's defense minister, Ibragim Gasseyev, accused the South Ossetian parliament of conniving to eliminate the local armed forces altogether.
Off-limits for Georgians, the separatist side of breakaway South Ossetia’s boundary with Georgian-controlled territory will now become partly restricted for South Ossetians, too, leaving little opportunity for civilian contact across the Russian-policed line of conflict.
South Ossetians will need a permit from the KGB, as the separatist region’s security services are still called, to visit villages along the boundary, the de-facto body announced on February 15. South Ossetians living in these villages reportedly are worried that they will eventually face eviction. Their ethnic Georgian population was evicted en masse during the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia over the territory.
The South Ossetian KGB and Russia’s FSB, which handles keeping a watch on the contact line with Georgian-controlled territory, assured local villagers, however, that no evictions plans are in the can and that the travel restrictions will not extend to residents themselves
“Before visiting you, your guests, be it friends or relatives, will need to go to the KGB’s border service, which will be issuing the permits,” said South Ossetian KGB official Soslan Tigiyev, reported a local outlet of the Russian-government-owned Sputnik news network. Locals objected to the travel restrictions.
Separatist officials also said that South Ossetian and Russian border guards must be notified of weddings or funerals – usually large-scale events in the South Caucasus -- to lift the restrictions temporarily. Friends and relatives residing on the Georgian-controlled side of the conflict line are altogether barred from attending social functions in the breakaway region.
Russian officials have attacked the International Criminal Court for an anti-Russian bias in its prosecution of alleged war crimes in the 2008 war with Georgia over South Ossetia.
At the end of January the ICC gave its prosecutor the go-ahead to investigate the war. The court's prosecutor has said she is looking at crimes allegedly committed by Georgian, South Ossetian, and Russian forces during the conflict. But all sides seem to have ignored the potential charges against Georgia, with Georgia welcoming the ICC's involvement and Russia and South Ossetia criticizing it.
After the ICC's announcement that it would proceed with the investigation, Russia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs complained that the court was taking Georgia's side.
"The ICC prosecutor has placed the blame with South Ossetians and Russian soldiers, taken the aggressor’s side, and started an investigation aimed against the victims of the attack. Such actions hardly reflect the ideals of justice," said MFA spokeswoman Maria Zakharova in a January 29 briefing. "In the light of the latest decision, the Russian Federation will be forced to fundamentally review its attitude towards the ICC."
Georgian soldiers have been accused of sexually abusing children while on a peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic, according to United Nations human rights officials. Georgia's ministry of defense said it was investigating the allegations.
UN investigators have been researching claims that children in the CAR were abused by soldiers in a European Union peacekeeping mission in 2014. In a statement issued Friday, theUN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said that some Georgians were among those accused.
"While the nationalities of some of the soldiers remain unclear, three of the girls said they believed their abusers were members of the Georgian EUFOR contingent. The four girls were aged between 14 and 16 at the time of the alleged abuse," the statement said.
About 100 Georgian soldiers served in the peacekeeping force from 2014-2015. They were the second-largest troop contributor to the force, behind France. Georgia presented the mission, as it does its many contributions to American and European military endeavors abroad, as a means of raising Georgia's prestige in the West.
Prosecutors at the International Criminal Court have identified Georgian military units trained by the United States as being suspected of war crimes, possibly jeopardizing future American aid to those units.
Last month, the ICC prosecutor's office formally requested the authority to start investigations into war crimes in the 2008 war between Georgia and Russia over the disputed territory of South Ossetia. According to the prosecutor's initial report, Georgian and Russian military forces, as well as units of the de facto South Ossetian security forces, all were implicated in war crimes.
In the Georgian case, the crimes involved attacks on Russian units of the Joint Peacekeeping Forces under the Sochi agreement between Georgia and Russia, which formally ended the conflict. Intentionally attacking peacekeepers is a war crime under the Rome Statute, under which the ICC operates. From the ICC report:
During the night from 7 to 8 August 2008 the Georgian armed forces conducted a military operation against JPKF HQ and the base of the Russian Peacekeeping Forces Battalion (RUPKFB) claiming that it had lost its protected status. According to the Russian authorities, 10 peacekeepers belonging to the Russian peacekeeping contingent were killed and a further 30 were wounded as a result.
South Ossetia, a separatist region that sees itself as an independent country, has announced plans to hold a popular show of hands about joining its big neighbor and benefactor, Russia.
“Today’s political reality is such that we have to make our historic choice: we must reunite with brotherly Russia and ensure centuries of security and prosperity for our republic, our people,” the region’s de-facto leader, Leonid Tibilov, allegedly announced at an October 19 meeting with Vladislav Surkov, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s advisor for separatist matters.
What particularly attracts South Ossetia to Russia is neighboring North Ossetia, a Russian republic seen as part of an Ossetian homeland.
But Putin’s press person, Dmitry Peskov, has a different recollection of Tibilov’s words. Nothing was said about a referendum or the region becoming part of Russia, he claimed, the state-run RIA reported. Just South Ossetia's "age-old dream of reunification" with Russia; in other words, nothing new, he said.
Russia effectively pulled South Ossetia out of Georgia during the two countries’ 2008 war, and subsequently declared it an independent state, an entity that it had saved from abuse by Georgia. It has shelled out millions of rubles to sponsor South Ossetia’s statehood-building.
It apparently sees no reason to go a step further and absorb the region altogether. South Ossetia has not announced a date for its referendum, but the plain message from Moscow is "bad timing."
March 11 was supposed to be a big day for South Ossetia, the tiny breakaway region with a wish to become one with Russia. A South Ossetian delegation had arrived in Moscow with an engagement ring — the so-called Treaty on Alliance and Integration — but Russia was just not ready to commit. Perhaps because it has too much going on in its life right now.
The main battleground for the 2008 Georgian-Russian war, South Ossetia never made a secret of its desire to become the next Crimea. Its leadership had left for the signing-ceremony in Moscow to much fanfare at home and teeth-grinding in jilted Tbilisi, which claims the mountainous border region as its own.
But Russian President Vladimir Putin did not even receive the delegation, much less sign the agreement meant to merge the Russian and South Ossetian economies and government agencies.
Russian media was awash with speculation: Putin had a running nose or thinks the territory did a sloppy job with the agreement or is bogged down in Ukraine and does not feel like adding another region to his land-grab collection right now. “Indefinite postponement of such a document’s signing on the eve of an event is an unprecedented development,” wrote Russia’s Vzglyad newspaper.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has modestly understated the number of military bases that Russia operates outside its borders, apparently forgetting about the several bases Russia has in the Caucasus and elsewhere.
In his big annual press conference on December 18, the BBC's John Simpson asked Putin about the breakout of a "new Cold War" and Russia's aggressive moves around its Western borders. Putin said that it was in fact the West who was aggressive:
We have basically only two bases abroad, and those are in terroristically dangerous directions: in Kyrgyzstan after militants from Afghanistan entered that country, at the reqyest of the Kyrgyz authorities, then President Akayev, and in Tajikistan -- also on the border with Afghanistan. I think you also would be interested in everything being stable there, too.
American bases are all over the globe. And you want to say that we're acting aggressively? Does that make sense? What are American armed forces, including tactical nuclear weapons, doing in Europe? What are they doing there?