South Ossetia Conflict Heats Up

by Nathan Hamm on 7/11/2004

osoldiersSince Georgian troops seized Russian military equipment on July 7th, the conflict in South Ossetia has gotten much messier, with the Ossetian side in particular becoming bold in attacking Georgian troops and villages.

On the 8th, South Ossetian troops captured Georgian peacekeepers, most of whom have since been released. On the 10th, Ossetian troops attacked Georgian positions in the conflict zone.

Reports say three servicemen of Georgian internal troops and one policeman were wounded in an overnight shootout in the South Ossetian conflict zone.

Three other Georgian soldiers were wounded on July 8 as a result of an armed attack against the checkpoint located between the Georgian villages of Kurta and Tamarasheni in breakaway South Ossetia.

This report says that the Ossetians directly attacked a village and destroyed part of a school and a playground.prisonersInterfax reports that Georgian troops also initiated attacks the same night.

Tskhinvali authorities had reported earlier that a South Ossetian police outpost had been fired upon by an unidentified Georgian armed unit on Friday evening. Several people were wounded in the incident, chief of the South Ossetian information and press department Irina Gagloyeva told Interfax.

The latest attack seems to have seriously angered the Georgians, who vowed not be drawn into a fight after their peacekeepers were detained. At a military graduation ceremony, Saakashvili said,

“Should there be any aggression from outside, we will meet it with aggression,” Saakashvili told the graduates. “Great battles await Georgia…and we shall win them.”

He is also talking tough with Russia.

The Georgian President warned Russia that in case the large-scale armed conflict erupts in breakaway South Ossetia, “it will not be an internal [Georgian] conflict; it will be a serious problem between the two countries – Georgia and Russia.”

“Current crisis in South Ossetia is not the problem between Georgians Ossetians. This is the problem between Georgia and Russia,” President Saakashvili said on July 11, while meeting with the group of ethnic Ossetians, who were gathered outside the President’s Administration office in Tbilisi to express support towards the peaceful resolution of the crisis.

osoldiers2Some reports also indicate that Russian aircraft are violating Georgian airspace. I can’t help but think that the Ossetians are only being so bold because they either are getting encouragement from Moscow or they are miscalculating the way that Aslan Abashidze did when he was sure that Moscow would protect him. It certainly could be that Russia feels its been burned too many times already in Georgia and truly does want to maintain South Ossetian independence even if the cost is high. However, Russia’s track record in its “pocket empire” has been to back down from confrontations when they threaten to become shooting wars. Georgia is talking tough too–something you have to admire out of a country so small. The US-Russia high-level diplomacy has begun, and that too has usually been a bad sign for Georgia’s separatists.

I’m sure I’ve said it before, but there’s little sense in Russia so doggedly holding on to a tiny slice of land with few people. It’s not as if Georgia isn’t willing to work with Russia–that has been made abundantly clear since Saakashvili took power. Russia’s powerful businesses certainly aren’t going to make money in countries with unsettled conflicts, and that is probably why those concerned with territory and prestige have lost out so thoroughly time after time in Georgia.

If I had to predict the outcome in South Ossetia, I’d say that Eduard Kokoyev is headed for Aslan Abashidze’s fate (unless he keeps shooting). Opening fire took what had been a low-level conflict headed for some type of negotiated settlement and turned it into one in which it’s very unlikely South Ossetia’s leaders will end up with anything.
osforces’s analysis argues that Kokoyev has made serious mistakes this week.

The South Ossetian leadership failed to capitalize on an essential moment of weakness in the Georgian government – a confrontation between the Interior Minister Irakli Okruashvili and the State Minister Goga Khaindrava that erupted after the detention of a Russian arms convoy. Instead of employing a subtle public relations strategy, Kokoev made a bet on a brunt force, and is now posed to lose his hand.

This recent escalation has helped the Georgian government to put its act back together. Indeed, an intervention by Saakashvili, who dismissed the squabble between the ministers, has helped. Khaindrava may not be good at the diplomatic nuance, but he knows about bravery – he spent a critical night yesterday in Tskhinvali, close to the arrested peacekeepers as a kind of a hostage himself – assuring Ossetians that Georgia is not planning a military onslaught.

After this point Kokoev is likely to experience the kind of conflict resolution that Saakashvili mastered during two “Rose Revolutions”. As one Georgian newspaper put it today, Kokoev is seeing “that the fuse is burning maddeningly fast.” Yesterday’s detention of the Georgian soldiers has triggered an immediate reaction by the US State Department, which condemned the act as “deplorable” treatment of the Georgian peacekeepers who, spokesperson Richard Boucher said, were “the hostages.” OSCE Chairman in Office has also called Kokoev “to release the detainees immediately.”

The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, for the first time since the tensions started to grow in South Ossetia, indicated that the responsibility party was in fact the South Ossetian authorities. Russian peacekeeping commander Svyatoslav Nabdzorov, who is hard to suspect of pro-Georgian sympathies, had to personally stand in charge of the armored detachment in order to secure the Georgian villages.

When the Russians admit their client is misbehaving, said client has little time left. The piece goes on to note there is very little reason for Kokoyev to return to the bargaining table. He’s backed himself into a corner that the Russians may be forced to yank him out of.

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– author of 2991 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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