Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Georgian, Russian Clash Narrowly Averted

Russian u-turn on withdrawal from Georgian village underlines fragility of peace agreement.
By Koba Liklikadze
Georgian and Russian forces late last week nearly came to blows again over a village on the western edge of South Ossetia.



The Russian military withdrew early on December 12 from the ethnic Georgian village of Perevi, where it had stayed for over four months, in spite of demands from Georgia and the European Union to leave. But they returned the same evening after a heavily armed Georgian special police unit deployed there.



After some threatening gestures by both sides and talks that lasted until the next morning, the Russians pushed the Georgian police out of Perevi and refused to let a delegation of EU ambassadors into the village. The incident has worried local people, whose lives have been turned upside down by the crisis with Russia.



In the nearby village of Jria, 70-year-old Parviz Bakradze sits at home by an iron stove. His home is 200 metres from Perevi, where many of his relatives and friends live. The Ossetian villages of Sinaguri and Jalabeti are two kilometres away.



But Bakradze says the Georgian and Ossetian villages do not communicate the way they used to before the first conflict over South Ossetia broke out in 1991.



“We used to feast together, with our arms on each other’s shoulders,” said Bakradze. “They wouldn’t hold a wedding without inviting us to it. There wasn’t a single wedding or funeral there without at least half of Perevi’s people present.”



Bakradze says he does not know much about “big politics” but that both sides played their parts in the latest tension.



“This is how I see it,” he said. “The Russians say that only a small [Georgian] police squad was supposed to replace them after their withdrawal from Perevi. Instead, several dozen cars carrying Georgian militaries and policemen, all of them armed to their teeth, entered the village, and the Russians were angry.



“Also, they must have been frightened, as the Ossetian villages and [the South Ossetian town of] Java are only a stone’s throw from here.”



Bakradze’s wife, Neli, joins the conversation. She is angry that her family, who were already living a difficult life in a not very prosperous village in the mountains, now has to worry about peace as well.



“They can shoot at me with their machineguns, my only wish is to see people living in peace,” she said, putting firewood in the stove. “There’s no peace, because the people leading the government are no good. Tape this and publish it, but what’s the use of my saying these words?”



Night had fallen now and the temperature had sunk to minus ten degrees.



“I pity the Russian lads, who are now standing outside,” said Neli in a low voice. “If they are hungry and ask me for food, I’ll give them some. I’ve got to, son, because we are Christians, aren’t we? Besides, during all this time they have been here we haven’t heard a single bad word from them. And there’s one Chechen officer among them, who’s been saying kind things to us all the time.”



The Bakradzes are not the only people who blame the behaviour of the Georgian side for the swift return of the Russian military to Perevi.



On December 12, all the news broadcasts on Georgian television began with a report that the Russians had left Perevi. Politicians were quick to hail the news as another victory for Georgian diplomacy. “Russia will regain its common sense soon,” said President Mikheil Saakashvili at a meeting with citrus farmers in Batumi.



Zurab Tsertsvadze, who is head of the Sachkhere district administration, where the villages are located, said the Russian military had “shown its claws” only after the EU delegation had angered them when it unexpectedly arrived in the village.



Whatever caused the Russian military to change its mind, they have by now reinforced their checkpoint outside Perevi and have dug themselves in. Caught between Russian soldiers and Georgian policemen pointing their guns at one another, Perevi villagers have sent their children away.



“My kids came to see me on the day the Russians left the village,” said Perevi resident Maia, after she had passed unimpeded through the Russian checkpoint. “I was happy, thinking they were leaving for good. But when these events started to unfold, I got my children out of the village, as the situation there was tense and I got scared. Now, my husband and I are alone in our house again.”



Perevi is home to around 300 Georgian families. Neither during Soviet times, nor since then has anyone disputed that this village is outside the administration of South Ossetia.



But the village sits in a strategically important location, next to the South Ossetian village of Sinaguri, from which a road leads to Java, the regional centre of South Ossetia, which the Georgian armed forces tried to capture at the beginning of the August war. Before the war, Perevi residents used to cross over to Sinaguri to visit their Ossetian relatives and friends. Now Perevi resident Madonna Endeladze complains that she has not heard from her Ossetian relatives for a long time.



“We have relatives and friends there, people with whom we shared our joys and sorrows,” she said. “We went everywhere together. Now, it’s been a year since we lost contact with each other. They left for Tskhinvali, and so we were separated from each other.”



According to the French-brokered six-point peace agreement signed on August 12, the Russian military was supposed to withdraw from Georgian areas outside South Ossetia, including from Perevi, by October 10. Their redeployment in the village on December 12 drew censure from Eric Fournier, France’s ambassador to Georgia, who together with other EU envoys went to Perevi that day to see if the Russian troops had left.



“For weeks, we had been negotiating to determine where South Ossetia’s administrative border passed,” he told journalists and villagers in Perevi. “Finally, we thought we’d convinced the Russians that Perevi was outside the administrative border of South Ossetia. We’d provided them with all the evidence. Now I just can’t understand what has happened and why the Russians have violated the agreement by not moving their post to the neighbouring village of Sinaguri.”



Soldiers of the Russian 58th army – the same one that occupied the Georgian town of Gori in August – are still controlling the entrance to Perevi. Locals are allowed to pass freely through this checkpoint, which is manned by seventy soldiers equipped with military vehicles. But the air in the village remains thick with tension, as no one knows how long the soldiers are there to stay.



Koba Liklikadze is a journalist with Radio Liberty in Tbilisi.

More IWPR's Global Voices