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Talking Through Gritted Teeth

Georgia and South Ossetia agree to talk, with little sign they will listen to each other’s core demands. by BBC Monitoring 6 August 2008 [Last week saw the worst outbreak of fighting between Georgian and South Ossetian forces in four years. In July 2004, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, heartened by his recent success in restoring political control in the restive Ajaria region, took on the more difficult task of trying to bring South Ossetia back under Tbilisi’s wing. After fighting that cost as many as 25 lives, however, Georgian forces pulled back. Low-level conflict continued as relations between Georgia and Russia worsened over Moscow’s backing for separatists in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and tensions arising from Tbilisi’s policy of closer ties with NATO and the European Union.



South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoity (right) and Abkhaz leader Sergei Bagapsh. Photo by Sergei Uzakov/www.ossetians.com

The small-arms and artillery exchanges last week resulted in at least six deaths (a South Ossetian claim to have killed 29 Georgian troops has not been confirmed). Several hundred children were sent over the border into the Russian North Ossetia republic in what South Ossetia referred to as an “evacuation.” What set off the fighting is not clear, but the self-declared South Ossetian authorities and Moscow took advantage of it to ramp up the pressure on Tbilisi. South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoity was quoted as saying, "In case of further escalation of the tension, we stand ready to announce total mobilization in South Ossetia and start recruiting volunteers throughout the North Caucasus.”

Tensions eased on 5 August as the three sides agreed to hold talks on 7 August, but there were no signs that Tbilisi was ready to give way in its opposition to the continued operation of the Joint Control Commission set up in 1992 to monitor the cease-fire in South Ossetia. The body consists of representatives of Russia, South Ossetia, North Ossetia, and Georgia, an arrangement Tbilisi asserts is unbalanced.

Georgian cabinet minister Temur Iakobashvili will represent Tbilisi at the talks in the South Ossetian town of Tskhinvali. In an interview he gave to a Georgian newspaper, Iakobashvili said the Georgian government was ready to begin talks "without any conditions” but also stressed that Tbilisi would only accept “a solution founded upon respect for Georgia's territorial integrity.” Earlier, Kokoity told a Russian television reporter that he blamed the United States and Ukraine equally with Georgia for the renewed tension. – TOL]


Georgia Ready to Talk with Separatists: Minister

Georgian Minister of State for Reintegration Temur Iakobashvili has said that the Georgian government is prepared to start direct bilateral talks with the South Ossetian separatists "without any conditions." He warned that any military action in the conflict zone is bound to affect civilians. The following is the text of Elza Tsiklauri's interview with Iakobashvili in Mteli Kvira, Monday edition of the privately owned Georgian daily newspaper Rezonansi on 4 August, headlined "What is Temur Iakobashvili offering to Tskhinvali? I am prepared to go there and talk to them anytime."

There was shooting in the Georgian-Ossetian conflict zone again yesterday [3 August] though it was not as intensive as on Saturday. The government in Tskhinvali decided to send the children from the conflict zone to the North Caucasus. At the same time, it has been reported that five battalions of Russia's 58th Army are approaching the Roki tunnel [linking South Ossetia with North Ossetia].

Meanwhile, Georgia has reiterated that it is prepared to engage in direct talks with the de facto government of Tskhinvali without any conditions, although the opinion of the Kokoity regime remains unknown to official Tbilisi. Iakobashvili traveled to the conflict zone two days ago to discuss the aforementioned proposal, but he was denied entry to Tskhinvali. Moreover, representatives of the Kokoity regime categorically refused to meet Iakobashvili then. The minister met Joint Peacekeeping Forces Commander Marat Kulakhmetov and Georgian peacekeeping Commander Mamuka Qurashvili at the Ergneti checkpoint instead.

What did they talk about and what did Tskhinvali think about the possibility of starting negotiations without any conditions? What is the situation in the conflict zone and what kind of steps is the Georgian side taking, given the recent escalation of tension? Mteli Kvira discussed these and other questions with Minister Iakobashvili.

GEORGIA READY TO START UNCONDITIONAL TALKS

Iakobashvili: The most important thing at the moment is that intensive shooting has not resumed. We have told the Tskhinvali leadership that they should not start shooting again as it will lead to further casualties among civilians. No one wants that to happen. It is a meaningless sacrifice.

Moreover, we have notified the Kokoity regime that we are prepared to start direct bilateral talks without any conditions. It is foolish to engage in a confrontation in the Tskhinvali region because it is bound to affect civilians immediately. It is not like a medieval war where the combatants would go and fight in a field. It is all taking place where people live and it is affecting civilians. For this reason, any kind of military action in this region is quite harmful.

They also know very well that the Georgian side is not planning to leave any of the acts of provocation that they stage without attention. You would expect this to discourage them from resorting to provocation again, but it looks like some people are still itching to do it. It is lamentable that they are really prepared to sacrifice their people. Kokoity wants to retain power but he should not try to do this at the expense of the lives of his people.

Mteli Kvira: How did Tskhinvali respond to your offer to start negotiations without any conditions?

Iakobashvili: Representatives of the Kokoity regime refused to meet me when I traveled to the conflict zone and the village of Ergneti in particular on Saturday. We were even prepared to go to Tskhinvali but they said they could not meet us because the situation was tense. Again, we are ready to meet them anywhere, anytime. We are not afraid of going to Tskhinvali, either.

Mteli Kvira: There have been conflicting reports about the wounded and the dead following the shooting on Saturday.

Iakobashvili: As far as I know, six people died and 14 were wounded on the separatist side. Most of them were members of armed bandit groups. According to the information that I have, seven people were wounded on our side.

ALL PARTIES TIRED OF CONFLICT

Mteli Kvira: While the situation remains tense in the conflict zone, North Ossetia announced that it will aid the Kokoity regime if needed. It has also been reported that five battalions of Russia's 58th Army have approached the Roki tunnel.

Iakobashvili: I do not know anything about this yet. It is possible that these are just rumors. I would like to draw your attention to the fact that they could hardly bring 1,200 people to a rally in Vladikavkaz [North Ossetia] on Saturday. It indicates that everyone is tired of this conflict in Vladikavkaz, Tbilisi, and Tskhinvali. We have no right to sacrifice the welfare of the people for the whims of a few politicians. The time has probably come to end the conflict, start the peace talks, and find a settlement that would promote the interests of every party and individual.

The statements issued by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs indicate that the people there also understand that the time has come to start discussing these questions for real. However, it should come as no surprise that the statements of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs are different from those made by the Russian military. Let us hope that the Russian Defense Ministry can catch up with the Russian diplomats soon.

Mteli Kvira: What will Tbilisi do if Tskhinvali rejects your offer and continues to stage acts of provocation?

Iakobashvili: Again, if they want to defuse the situation and resolve the conflict, we are ready to sit down and find a solution founded upon respect for Georgia's territorial integrity. If they are planning to continue resorting to provocation, they must know that it will have dire consequences for them. I do not know why they would want to preserve the status quo as it is quite harmful to their people.

For this reason, if we have to choose between the negotiations, the provocations, and the status quo, it would probably be most appropriate to opt for negotiations and the settlement of the conflict. All parties should agree to this.

South Ossetia Leader Slams Georgia, U.S.

Text of report by state-owned Russian television channel Rossiya on 2 August:

Presenter: Just before the news, we managed to talk to the president of South Ossetia, Eduard Kokoity. Hello, Eduard Dzhabeyevich.

Kokoity: Hello.

Presenter: What is your assessment of the situation in South Ossetia and around it?

Kokoity: The situation is extremely grave. Given unceasing provocations from the Georgian side, since earlier today, in the morning, when the shooting stopped, Georgian troop movements have been in evidence. Several artillery systems have also been spotted, which are now in position to fire on South Ossetian positions, on population centers.

Presenter: What can South Ossetia do in response in the event of an unfavorable turn of events in the next few hours?

Kokoity: Undoubtedly, our response will be appropriate. Enough warnings to the Georgian side – we will be delivering very aggressive strikes against those firing positions that will be exposed today, both today and in general.

Let me say that these are the results of Condoleezza Rice's trip to Georgia. We can now see what these results are, these peace, in inverted commas, efforts by the U.S. and the EU. We want to say that full responsibility for further escalating the tension will be shared along with Georgia equally by the United States, Ukraine, and other nations that are arming Georgia. [In early July, U.S. Secretary of State Rice visited Tbilisi, where she reaffirmed Washington’s backing for Georgian entry into NATO and said talks on the Ossetian and Abkhazian conflicts should take place on a higher political level – TOL.]

Presenter: How likely is it that general mobilization will be declared in South Ossetia in the next few hours?

Kokoity: In principle, everything hinges on how the situation develops. In general, our intention as a whole is to use all possible resources to resume the process of negotiations, to come back to the negotiation table and discuss all these issues. At the same time, we are in a very resolute mood. Let no one be in any doubt about it.

Presenter: Have you made any attempts today to establish contact with Tbilisi?

Kokoity: The situation today is that there is no such need. We are highly appreciative of the efforts of the Russian Federation, and personally special envoy and JCC [Joint Control Commission] co-chairman Yuri Popov, who has come and in practice has done a lot for the sides to embark on dialogue. However, we can also see what the Georgian side's attitude is to these initiatives from the Russian Federation and how the efforts of the Russian Federation and of Popov personally have been negated. The fact is that agreement had virtually been reached to begin the work of the Joint Control Commission, to which the Georgian side had also given its preliminary consent, and the South Ossetian side had backed the initiative of the Russian Federation. At the last moment, however, the Georgian side staged more provocations, which resulted in the events everyone saw happen overnight. …
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