The Makings of a Second Russian-Georgian War?

Russian armed forces in Georgia.  Source: ReutersAs the first anniversary of Russia’s war with Georgia approaches, the area is showing signs that violence may flare up once again.  Last year, similar shoot-outs between separatist South Ossetian forces and their counterparts on the Georgian side steadily escalated into full-blown combat.  Is the stage being set for a second armed confrontation over the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia?

Writing for the Nezavisimaya Gazeta newspaper, journalist Yuri Simonyan explores the deteriorating situation, assessing the chances of a second Russian-Georgian war.

Yuri Simonyan
Nezavisimaya Gazeta
August 3, 2009

The situation in South Ossetia took a definite turn for the worst last weekend. The Ossetians claim that their capital city of Tskhinvali and police checkpoints come under regular fire from the Georgian territory. Tbilisi reverses the accusations and claims that it is Georgian police checkpoints that are fired at.

Guarantor of Abkhazian and South Ossetian security, the Russian Defense Ministry issued a statement warning the Georgian authorities to give a thought to consequences of the failure to put an end to “provocations against a sovereign republic, its citizens, and Russian servicemen”. A year ago, analogous warnings, accusations, and skirmishes had escalated into a shooting war.

Official Tbilisi maintains in all earnest that provocations are engineered by Moscow and Tskhinvali.

That Georgian State Minister for Reintegration Temur Yakobashvili said the Russian Defense Ministry was lying through the teeth to justify presence of “the occupiers on the territory or Georgia”. “No Georgians ever fired at Tskhinvali or checkpoints, including the checkpoints near the village of Eredvi.
Making all these bold statements, Russia hopes to justify the presence of the occupiers in the region. Fortunately, the international community knows better. Russia hopes to draw us into these provocations. It will fail,” Yakobashvili announced. The state minister dismissed another shooting war as unlikely “even though it is predicted by doomsday prophet Felgengauer”. This Russian expert had recently evaluated chances of another Russian- Georgian war at 80%.

The Georgian Foreign Minister appraised the statement issued by the Russian Defense Ministry as an open threat to “a sovereign neighbor”. “Aggressive rhetorics of the Russian Defense Ministry and some senior officers of the Russian Armed Forces reveals existence of some plans with regard to Georgia,” it said and urged the international community to appraise the statement issued in Moscow.

That Tbilisi will once again secure the international community’s support goes almost without saying. Lacking access to the territory controlled by Tskhinvali, the EU Monitoring Mission in Georgia (EUMM) refused to confirm the fact of firing at the South Ossetian capital. EUMM spokesman Steve Bird told journalists that observers had failed to find evidence of firing at Tskhinvali or any other South Ossetian settlement from the Georgian territory. The official statement made by the EUMM in the meantime included a reference to the necessity of access to the territory or South Ossetia, something Tskhinvali was denying EU observers.  The EUMM backed the Georgian claims that the checkpoint near Zemo Nikozi had come under mortar and automatic rifle fire from the direction of South Ossetia.

South Ossetian Foreign Minister Murat Jioyev dismissed the EUMM’s verdict as prejudiced. “Neither do they notice rapid remilitarization of Georgia, growth of its military potential, or aggressiveness of its leaders with regard to South Ossetia… All of that plainly shows that the August 2008 events have taught the Georgians nothing,” Jioyev told Nezavisimaya Gazeta.

Military expert Irakly Sesiashvili in his turn disputed the assurances of the official Georgian authorities that an armed conflict was unlikely. Last Friday, President of South Ossetia Eduard Kokoity voiced territorial grudges against Georgia and said that the Trusov Gorge (currently controlled by the Georgians) had always been Ossetian. “There are some serious territorial issues we want brought up. The Trusov Gorge which is currently part of the Mtskheta-Mtianeti Administrative District of Georgia is ancestral Ossetian land turned over to the Georgian Social Socialist Republic in the Soviet period for some inexplicable reason,” Kokoity said. “Time to demand its return to Ossetia.” As far as Sesiashvili was concerned, Kokoity’s statement signalled “the resolve of Tskhinvali to expand its territory and the desire on Moscow’s part to expand the security zone.”

Tbilisi claims in the meantime that deterioration of the situation in South Ossetia is Moscow’s way of reminding everyone that it does not want Mikhail Saakashvili as the president of Georgia. It is also alleged that Moscow’s stiffly-worded statements are expected to inflame and encourage the Georgian
opposition that pins the blame for the loss of territories [Abkhazia and South Ossetia] on Saakashvili alone. Applying pressure in the region, the Kremlin sends a message to Tbilisi that it won’t let go while Saakashvili remains the president.

Political scientist Paata Zakareishvili who visited South Ossetia the other day disagreed with this hypothesis.  Zakareishvili called the latest deterioration “petty and local”.  “The Georgian law enforcement agencies arrested an Ossetian gunman by name of Pukhayev, the one who had gained notoriety through exceptionally cruel eradication of the Georgian village of Kurta in the August war. The Ossetians responded by opening fire at Zemo Nikozi. The Georgian probably returned it, and so on,” Zakareishvili said.

Translated by Aleksei Ignatkin