South Ossetia Mobilises

Alarmed at Georgia's operation in the Pankisi Gorge, the unrecognised republic of South Ossetia is calling up reservists.

South Ossetia Mobilises

Alarmed at Georgia's operation in the Pankisi Gorge, the unrecognised republic of South Ossetia is calling up reservists.

Thursday, 10 October, 2002

For the past week, the playground of School No 5 in Tskhinval, the capital of South Ossetia, has been a strange sight. Instead of children playing hide-and-seek, it has been filled with a crowd of army reservists queuing up at the main door. Inside, a man sits at a school desk, entering their names and addresses.

"There's been no official mobilisation, but we're doing quite well," a man named Armaz Bestayev, evidently one of the leaders of the group, explained. "We have already formed more than half a battalion."

This is the first time the breakaway republic has called up soldiers since it went to war with Georgia a decade ago - and although the government has not made the mobilisation official it is clear that the process is happening with its full support.

"In the final analysis this is a test of the readiness of our men to defend their homeland, so we are not caught unawares," Bestayev said.

Renewed tension between Georgia and South Ossetia peaked on September 30 when President Eduard Shevardnadze said in his weekly radio interview that it would be "reasonable" to extend the security sweep operation in the Pankisi Gorge into South Ossetia, a region which he said also suffered from a high level of criminality.

To the South Ossetians, this sounded like a threat of imminent military intervention. The president of the unrecognised republic Eduard Kokoyev publicly appealed to his people to rally around him.

The two sides have been deeply divided since the conflict of 1992, when the Ossetians won de facto secession from Tbilisi at the cost of around two thousand dead and 100,000 displaced persons.

Since then, the separatist territory has had persistently troubled relations with the Georgian areas around it. "The regions adjoining Tskhinvali have turned into a place of kidnapping, car theft and drug-dealing," said Amiran Noradze, Georgian prosecutor in Shida Kartli, one such region.

Noradze said that the crime rate had gone up sharply compared to a year ago and alleged criminals were taking refuge inside South Ossetia.

As a result of the increased tension, at a special meeting of the Joint Control Commission - consisting of South Ossetia, Georgia, Russia and North Ossetia - on October 3 in Tskhinval, the South Ossetian representative, Boris Chochiev, said his side was worried about the danger of a new conflict.

The Georgians declared they had no intention of launching a military action against the breakaway territory. Jemal Gakhokidze, one of the heads of Georgia's Security Council, told journalists, "Sending any security forces onto the territory of South Ossetia and conducting any special operation here is completely impossible, as this will lead to an armed clash, which is something the authorities of Georgia do not support."

Gakhokidze sees the solution in close cooperation with the South Ossetian law enforcement agencies. There was a positive example of this in late September, when a group of Georgian policemen joined forces with their Ossetian colleagues and raided a mountain village, where they had information that two criminals, accused of stealing cars, were hiding.

"We really do have positive and valuable experience of collaboration between law enforcement agencies," Konstantin Kochiev, state adviser to the South Ossetian president told IWPR. "But now we have the feeling that contacts like these are being stopped by the Georgian authorities."

In the meantime, a hush has descended on the once-thriving market at the village of Ergneti in the security zone patrolled by Russian peacekeepers. In recent years, almost all Russian goods, both legal and illegal, coming into Georgia, passed through this market. But the number of both buyers and sellers has dropped dramatically in recent days - and Russian products have started disappearing from Tbilisi shops.

The latest trouble has gone against the generally positive flow of Georgian-Ossetian relations over the last few years. A survey carried out by the Centre for Information Technology in South Ossetia, in both Georgian and Ossetian villages, strongly suggests that no one wants a new confrontation. Almost all those polled said they wanted to live in peace without any new trouble in their lives.

"In forecasting the situation, we have to remember that the growth of tension around South Ossetia is directly linked to the problems in Georgia-Russian relations," said Aza Kokoyeva, an expert at the South Ossetia State University.

As a result, the Ossetians view with alarm the agreement struck by Presidents Putin and Shevardnadze on joint patrols of the Georgia-Russia border, fearing that the Georgians will try and extend them into their region.

Kosta Dzugayev is director of the NGO Centre for Information Technology in Tskhinval, South Ossetia. Margarita Akhvlediani in Tbilisi contributed to this report.

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