Sabre Rattling Over South Ossetia

Following South Ossetia’s rejection of a Georgian peace plan, is Tiblisi preparing for war?

Sabre Rattling Over South Ossetia

Following South Ossetia’s rejection of a Georgian peace plan, is Tiblisi preparing for war?

Friday, 18 November, 2005

A cluster of khaki tents at the Georgian village of Dzevera is at the centre of growing speculation that the Tbilisi government is preparing to resolve the South Ossetian conflict through force.

Set up last November just ten kilometres from the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali, the camp serves as base for 300-350 reservists taking combat training courses run in part by US National Guard instructors – from the US state of Georgia.

The camp, which includes three big tents used as barracks, a field headquarters and supply centres, is temporary in nature. There are no fences, watchtowers, or other permanent structures.

However, the site is well inside the 15 kilometre “conflict zone” around Tskhinvali where strict limits are in place on troop deployments. Because of this, many see the camp as part of a widening Georgian military build-up following the rejection by South Ossetia’s rebel government of a proposed peace plan on January 24.

The Georgian authorities launched the reservist training programme in August last year, right after a series of clashes that left several dozen Georgian and South Ossetian soldiers and civilians dead. Since then, more than 3,000 men have taken the one-month course, paid for by a five million lari (2.7 million US dollar) presidential fund.

Each new intake of reservists receives heavy media coverage, and the commanders of the reserve battalions are generally members of President Mikheil Saakashvili’s ruling National Party, such as Georgy Arveladze and David Kirkitadze. The new recruits, who learn tactics, shooting and use of military equipment, also include parliamentarians and government officials.

Kirkitadze, who is deputy head of the parliamentary committee on defence and security, did not deny that the deployment might result in a military operation. “We are preparing to carry out all tasks which the commander in chief gives us,” he said. “We all realise perfectly well that this is a country that has lost part of its territory. In case of need, we should be well prepared and able to resolve any problem with force. That is what they are preparing us for.”

At the same time, Georgia is rapidly boosting its weapons stockpiles, mostly with purchases from Ukraine, where Saakashvili has a political ally in the new president Viktor Yushchenko.

In fact, around the time of the recent Orange Revolution in Ukraine, Georgia was buying heavy weaponry, according to Georgian officials.

Military expert Irakly Aladvishili told IWPR this consisted of up to 40 tanks, tracked armoured personnel carriers and wheeled APCs, “This is allowing the complete re-arming of the Georgian army. In particular, the armoured strength has already significantly risen.”

Georgia is paying for the weaponry with a threefold increase in the defence budget for 2005.

Meanwhile, US-backed training programmes are also starting to take effect. Some 3,000 regular soldiers have already been through a course completed last year, while a further 3,000 will participate in another based at Krtsanisi, outside Tbilisi.

An additional 850 Georgian soldiers are now deployed in Iraq, and they will be rotated every seven months, bringing important war zone experience to the army.

For Saakashvili, rebuilding the country’s demoralised and poorly equipped military, has always been a key goal. One aim is to steer Georgia into NATO, but the president has also never hid his desire to be able to deal with the separatist conflicts in South Ossetia and Abkhazia from a position of strength – although so far he has insisted this will be achieved by peaceful means.

“Disarm, disband your armed groups and begin negotiations with the new Georgian authorities,” said Saakashvili, surrounded by special forces soldiers, back in January 2004 after his inauguration.

Soon after, the government announced it had taken possession of five military helicopters and two patrol boats that had been sent for repair to Ukraine four years earlier.

A huge boost came with the May 2004 overthrow of Aslan Abashidze, the regional authoritarian leader in Ajaria. When he fled to Moscow, Georgian officials inherited a small mountain of weaponry.

“We got three containers full of weapons. One of them alone was full of Strela ground-to-air rockets. Each of these costs 10,000 dollars and there were 38 of them,” Mamuka Lomsadze, head of the defence ministry’s logistics branch, told IWPR.

“There were also serious sniper’s rifles made in Switzerland, Russian Fagot anti-tank rockets and a lot else. Apart from that we got eight Mi-8 helicopters and several patrol boats.”

The weapons had been purchased from Russia by Abashidize and stored with the local ministry of the interior and security service.

Now, say some observers, the Georgian government is preparing for a spring campaign to pressure South Ossetia – possibly by force.

Political analyst Paata Zakareishvili decried what he said was Tbilisi’s “propaganda war”.

“Constantly showing off military strength, all this talk about how the country must have a strong army and the training of reserves – all this is an example of war rhetoric. All the more, this is happening when nothing is being done for the peaceful resolution of the conflict. It seems to me that in fact a military build up is taking place and that our authorities are seriously preparing for military action,” he said.

The minister for conflict resolution, Giorgy Khaindrava, says that a demilitarisation accord reached after last August’s fighting in South Ossetia has “paused”.

According to Khaindrava, the situation in South Ossetia remains calm. The Georgian peacekeeping contingent – deployed alongside Ossetian and Russian contingents – has been reduced to about half the stipulated 500 men.

However, the Georgian government says that Russia, which is the unrecognised territory’s sole backer, is pouring arms and advisers into the area through the Roki Tunnel border crossing that connects North and South Ossetia.

Khaindrava also conceded that the Dzevera reservist camp is a violation of existing agreements. “These kinds of violations create problems for us,” he said recently.

“What peaceful resolution can you talk about when we are looking at each other through the prism of mistrust?”

The Georgian government, widely criticised for the way the way it attempted last summer to combine military pressure with humanitarian deliveries to South Ossetia, denies it is war mongering.

The peace plan presented by Saakashvili at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg in January offered wide autonomy to South Ossetia within a federal Georgian state.

Tbilisi has also named several ethnic-Abkhazians or ethnic-Ossetians like Alana Gagloyeva to government posts. Gagloyeva is Saakashvili’s press secretary.

However, South Ossetia’s president Eduard Kokoity dismissed the proposal as an attempt “to complicate” the Georgian-Ossetian settlement process and said his people had already chosen independence.

Zakareishvili said the plan was “very serious” in principle, handing the Ossetians much of what they had demanded during the presidency of Eduard Shevardnadze. However, the way it was delivered – without consultation with the Ossetians – was “unacceptable”.

At the same time, most observers see the increasing influence of Defence Minister Irakly Okruashvili as a victory for the hawkish camp in the government. As the interior minister Okruashvili was one of the main “hawks” on South Ossetia last August. In naming him to the defence post, Saakashvili remarked that his close ally would keep the job until Georgia’s territorial integrity was restored.

The death last month of Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania, who was active in promoting compromise in South Ossetia, has also weakened the more moderate line in the government .

South Ossetian officials say they mistrust the Georgian government’s double strategy of peace plans and military build-up.

“Georgia is preparing for armed aggression against South Ossetia,” Dmitry Medoyev, Kokoity’s representative in Moscow, told Rosbalt news agency.

Koba Liklikadze covers military affairs for Radio Liberty in Tbilisi.

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