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.
International Criminal Court Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda arrived in Georgia on October 16 to test the ground for a pending investigation into what she “reasonably believes” are war crimes committed during the 2008 war between Georgia and Russia. The list includes the mass expulsion of ethnic Georgians from the war’s main battleground, separatist South Ossetia.
“The goal of this examination is to carefully assess whether or not as a prosecutor of the International Criminal Court I should proceed with an investigation of alleged crimes committed during the  conflict,” Bensouda told a briefing in Tbilisi.
Her office’s preliminary probe already has “identified war crimes and crimes against humanity that the court has the powers to prosecute; in particular, the killing, displacement and prosecution of ethnic Georgian civilians and and destruction and pillaging of their property by South Ossetian forces, with possible participation of Russian forces.”
The expulsion of an estimated 15,000 ethnic Georgians from South Ossetia, roughly 75 percent of the separatist region’s ethnic Georgian population before the war, “constitutes a crime against humanity and is undoubtedly very grave,” said Bensouda in an earlier video statement.
Georgian officials welcomed the prosecutor’s mission, even though Georgia is also likely to be investigated for war crimes if the ICC’s judges authorize a full investigation of the conduct of all three sides to the conflict — Russia, Tbilisi and South Ossetia.
Among the possible trouble areas — Georgian forces’ attacks against Russian peacekeepers, and South Ossetian fighters’ attacks against Georgian peacekeepers, Bensouda added.
If Russia is looking for more land to grab, breakaway South Ossetia is interested. “Inspired” by the example of Crimea, South Ossetia’s separatist leader said on June 2 that his tiny Caucasus region can’t wait to glue itself to the Russian Federation.
“This historic moment should come,” said de-facto President Leonid Tibilov, news agencies reported. “We have good chances of becoming part of Russia.”
Following Russia's gobbling of Crimea, many wondered what next separatism-prone territory would end up in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annexation collection. So far, separatists in Ukraine’s East, Moldova’s Transnistria and Georgia’s South Ossetia have raised their hands.
“Here in South Ossetia we were excited to watch the Russian leadership deciding to reunite Crimea with Russia,” elaborated Tibilov dreamily. “We are happy for the people of Crimea, who finally have a home.”
The separatist leader said that the Crimea experience had created a wisp of hope in South Ossetian hearts that someday the same can happen to them.
The attraction for these individuals lies due north, in the Russian Federation's North Ossetia, seen locally as the region's Siamese twin. The two have been separated since 1922.
But whether or not Moscow has the incentive to try and reunite them remains unclear.
A former British army captain, who was branded a Russian spy and drubbed out of Georgia in 2008, is back as deputy head of the European Union’s cease-fire monitoring operation. Former Georgian officials are also back with their accusations against Ryan Grist, the ex-deputy head of the Georgian mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Back in 2008, Grist caused quite a furor in Georgia when he vanished into wartime South Ossetia and, then, told the Western press that he questioned Tbilisi's claims that a pending Russian invasion had prompted its dispatch of troops into the territory. The OSCE mission to Georgia distanced itself from Grit’s words and, The Wall St. Journal reported, "forced him to resign." (The mission itself eventually closed, after Russia's objections to its presence in Georgia.)
The United National Movement (UNM), now an opposition party, condemned Grist’s appointment to the European Union Monitoring Mission (EUMM), saying that "a reasonable suspicion" exists that he had worked with "the Russian secret services."
“We call on the Georgian government to use all means at its disposal to make sure Mr. Grist leaves not just the EU observation mission, but also Georgia,” the UNM’s Zurab Jafaridze told Tabula TV. The ruling Georgian Dream, which is far less enthusiastic about exposing alleged pro-Russian enemies of state, has not publicly responded to the call.
In a throwaway remark made on the sidelines of the Sochi Olympics earlier this week, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that he is open to meeting Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili. Such an encounter, if it ever happens, would be the first top-level Russo-Georgian sit-down since the two countries' 2008 war.
Putin, who gave Georgian TV crews a wide smile and best wishes for the Georgian athletes in Sochi, only uttered the February 10 remark in passing after being asked by a Georgian reporter. “Yeah, why not if he wants to?” was his soundbite in reference to Margvelashvili before walking off to get back to the cares of the Olympics.
But it was enough for Tbilisi to conclude that it had been asked out and that it is time to start preparing for a rendez-vous with the country's Public Enemy Number One.
Georgian media has erupted into constant chitchat about what such an event could involve. President Margvelashvil appears to be busy scrutinizing Putin’s two-second line for hidden meaning, while Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili, who was not mentioned by Putin, says he will take up the offer.
“As the head of the Georgian government, I am ready for a direct dialogue with the Russian leadership,” Gharibashvili told Imedi news channel. The comment was duly scooped up by Russia's state-run RIA Novosti as "signifying a thaw in bilateral ties."
A choir of other officials from the ruling Georgian Dream, however, keep saying they need to think through any such get-together first.
Georgia on August 8 vowed to start direct talks with the representatives of breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but it may need first to deal with that uninvited party to the conversation, Russia.
Speaking on the fifth anniversary of Georgia's 2008 war with Russia over the two territories, Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili called on Georgians to wipe the slate clean and collectively reach out to the regions, now located behind a line of Russian troops. “We need to get the strength to forgive...but also we have to accept our own mistakes and undo what still can be undone,” Ivanishvili said, Georgian news outlets reported.
“We are ready for a direct dialogue with our Abkhaz and Ossetian brothers,” he went on to say. “I am confident that we will find a common language to work toward a shared future.”
One Georgian government minister specified later that Tbilisi does not intend to accept in any way the regions' Russian-backed claims to independence from Georgia. “This means restoring mutual trust between the peoples and by no means between subjects of international law,” said Alex Petriashvili, the state minister for Euro-Atlantic integration, Netgazeti.ge reported.
State Minister for Reintegration Paata Zakareishvili told RFE/RL's Georgian service that the new policy would mark a change from the more maximalist, nationalist sentiments that existed prior to the war and an attempt to be more accommodating to the interests of the breakaway regions.
Moscow on August 6 issued a friendly reminder to Georgia that Russia’s got nuclear bombs; just something to keep in mind while weighing the costs and benefits of joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Amidst a refrain (by now, hackneyed to many Georgians) about how politics and wars can’t get between the pair's centuries-old friendship, Medvedev had one key message -- the Kremlin’s unremitting disappointment over Georgia’s NATO fetish.
“We are against -- putting it mildly -- Georgia’s joining NATO,” Medvedev said, in remarks voiced-over into Georgian by Rustavi2. But don’t get us wrong, he continued. “Any country has the right to choose a preferred political and military alliance to join,” yet the Kremlin just can’t sit and watch a neighboring country, be it Georgia or Ukraine, become part of a strategic alliance that still has Russia in the crosshairs.
“May I remind you that Russia is a very big country with a huge nuclear arsenal and that is something not to be ignored . . .” he added. "Yes, we have a partnership with NATO, but a fact remains a fact."
Rustavi2 anchor Nino Shubladze pointed out that the Baltic countries had joined the Euro-Atlantic military club and it did not seem to lead to any doomsday developments.
Yes, and Moscow is not happy about it, Medvedev pointed out. Nothing good will come of Georgia’s following the Baltic example, he reiterated.
Five years after their 2008 war, Georgia and Russia appear to be busy getting nowhere toward any form of reconciliation. Russia’s Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has said that Moscow will restore diplomatic ties with Georgia if Tbilisi admits to starting the fight. In an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, who launched a charm offensive in Moscow, countered that Tbilisi is doing its darndest to be constructive, but stands firm with its demand that breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia return to Georgian control.
In an August 4 interview with the pro-Kremlin TV broadcaster Russia Today, Medvedev, who was Russia's president in 2008, claimed that military engagement with Georgia was his idea and that he had not been playing second fiddle to then Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. He also claimed that toppling the government in Georgia was never Russia’s goal -- but did not explain how that jives with Putin’s reported intention to hang Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili by his private parts.
Commenting on Georgia’s internationally backed calls for Russia to withdraw its recognition of the sovereignty of breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia (and with it, its troops), Medvedev passed the buck to the separatist regions' residents. Political choices “lie with the people who live there,” he underlined.
For the Russian military, any reconciliation with Georgia, it seems, will not extend to R&R in Georgia. Once a popular spot for Russian soldiers to go for vacation or for war, Georgia has been blacklisted as a spot for rest-and-recuperation by the Russian Ministry of Defense.
At first glance, that may not seem surprising. The two countries, after all, did fight a five-day war in 2008 that resulted in the rupture of diplomatic ties, and the introduction of Russian troops into breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which Georgia claims as its territory.
Yet with the advent of Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili to power last year, Moscow had suggested that the sun might shine, once more, on Russian-Georgian relations.
No more, it seems. The blacklist was preceded by moves by Gennadiy Onishchenko, head of the food-security agency Rospotrebnadzor, to defend Russia's food front against potential incursions by Georgian fruit, vegetables and wine, which he believes may be doctored by a US-run biological laboratory in Georgia to poison Russian consumers.
Whether or not this scenario is Onishchenko's creation alone is not clear. (The vision came to him after Ivanishvili announced expectations for Georgia to receive a Membership Action Plan from NATO next year.) But, now, it seems, the Russian military has a few fears of its own, too.
Try as he might, Russia's Dr. Strangelove, otherwise known as food security tsar Dr. Gennadiy Onishchenko, has not yet stopped worrying and learned to love a Georgian tomato. Or a peach. Or a bottle of wine.
Onishchenko, who apparently has a nose like no other for potential alimentary attacks, now has deduced that a US-sponsored biological lab in Georgia supposedly could be used to poison fruit, vegetables and wine bound for Russia.
To hear him describe it, the lab, named after former US Senator Richard Lugar, sounds like a military-guarded facility hemmed with barbed wire, and with a dark storm cloud constantly hovering overhead. It is a “powerful offensive” weapon and “is out of the control of the Georgian authorities,” Onishchenko said in a statement. The presence of such a force in the proximity of the Russian border is “a direct violation of the Biological Weapons Convention,” he asserted.
The upshot: If Georgia wants to keep selling its agricultural produce to Russia, it has to shut down the Lugar Lab.