Russia’s policy regarding South Ossetia remains unknown, Georgia
July 7 2004

Russia’s policy regarding South Ossetia remains unknown

Recent events show that Georgia is going to continue putting pressure
upon Tskhinvali separatists with the aim of restoring its territorial
integrity in the region. It is still not known, however, how Russia
will conduct itself in this respect. President Mikheil Saakashvili
claims that Russian President Vladimir Putin promised him that Russia
would not interfere in Georgia’s internal affairs. However, Russia’s
true intentions regarding South Ossetia remain to be seen – too often
during Shevardnadze’s administration Russia said one thing but did
the other.

Just two days ago President Saakashvili signed a document determining
the status of the Adjaran Autonomous Republic. According to the
president this is a historical document and the issue of the status
of Adjara has now been decided once and for all. Georgia in reality
faced losing Adjara, but this was prevented by the support of
friendly countries and the efforts of the Georgian people.

The Batumi velvet revolution was the first successful step toward
Georgia’s reintegration. Saakashvili has stated that he will not
tolerate separatist enclaves within his country’s territory, and sees
South Ossetia as his prime target.

To protect himself from the humanitarian-aid “attack” of the Georgian
authorities, the leader of the separatist regime Eduard Kokoiti has
begun digging trenches and putting all the region’s armed-forces on
high-alert. Kokoiti’s combativeness very much depends upon the
Russian position. But this position remains unknown. While the
Russian Foreign Ministry expressed its “deep respect” for Georgian
territorial integrity over the weekend, a high ranking Moscow
official Mayorov would not answer a simple question put by the
Georgian State Minister Goga Khaindrava – which two countries are
connected by the Roki Tunnel?

The Roki tunnel connects Russia with Georgia in South Ossetia, and
Mayorov’s refusal to openly answer this question could thus be
understood as Russia not considering South Ossetia as part of
Georgia, unless this was an initiative of Mayarov himself. Russia may
have “deep respect” for Georgia’s territorial integrity, but
diplomats still wonder if that includes South Ossetia?

Many thought that the relationship between Georgia and Russia would
have been clarified during the resent Putin-Saakashvili meeting.
Despite the announcement of a simplified visa regime, the meeting
left many more issues unanswered. October is now named as the date to
finalize a Georgian-Russian agreement. Saakashvili announced that
President Putin will visit Tbilisi in October, when the signing of a
framework agreement between the two countries is also planned.

The Russian media has speculated that Putin’s meeting with
Saakashvili on Saturday was rather reserved. This was mainly
explained by the NATO Istanbul summit communiqué again calling for
Russia to remove its military bases from Georgia and by Saakashvili’s
categorical tone during the same summit.

Whatever the speculation, it seems certain that Russia is not
entirely happy with Georgia’s expressed desire to integrate with NATO
and the European Union. Also, Moscow does not want to withdraw its
military bases from Georgia. Russia would rather have Georgia taking
a more pro-Russia stance, rather than pro-Western, like Armenia, in
which case Russia’s interests in the South Caucasus would be
protected and secured.

For instance, Georgia asks Russia to jointly control the Roki Tunnel
so as to stop the smuggling of goods from Russia to Georgia, whereas
Moscow demands that Georgia join CIS-wide customs system which will
completely change the status of smuggled goods. So the positions of
the countries differ radically.

It may be that Saakashvili really received a promise from Putin of
non-interference in Georgia’s internal affairs, but that could be a
mousetrap for Georgia. It could encourage
Georgia to become involved in a local conflict, which could be very
damaging for a poor country such as Georgia and would hinder Georgia
from its movement towards the West. This possible conflict, moreover,
would give grounds to Moscow to refuse fulfilling its commitments on
withdrawing its troops from Georgia.

“Positional ballots” around South Ossetia are underway, and most
probably one should not expect a third “Rose Revolution” in this
region in the near future. However, time is not currently against
Georgia. As President Saakashvili said, in one year Georgia will be
stronger. Maybe only after the October Putin visit will it become
clearer to Georgia how to conduct its relations with Russia.

From: Emil Lazarian | Ararat NewsPress