|Russian Peacekeeper checkpoint in Meghvrekisi,
South Ossetian conflict zone.
Georgian parliamentarians gear up for crucial hearings on February 7 that may result in a demand to pull out Russian peacekeeping troops from the South Ossetian conflict zone. Analysts in Georgia are speculating on possible scenarios that might follow this decision. Most observers agree that the probability of provocations with further risks of armed confrontation will increase after the Russian troops withdraw, but many analysts also expect that the Russian troops will not leave the conflict zone immediately and the process will be dragged out.
Russian troops are stationed in South Ossetia as part of the Joint Peacekeeping Forces (JPKF), which also involves Georgian and Ossetian servicemen. The JPKF was set up and stationed in the conflict zone based on a June 24, 1992 agreement. Then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin and then-Head of the Georgian State Eduard Shevardnadze signed this agreement in Russia’s resort city of Sochi.
Although the idea of the JPKF was set up on the basis of Sochi agreement, a detailed mandate for the joint forces was outlined later in 1992 in agreements signed in frames of the Joint Control Commission (JCC) – a quadripartite negotiating body involving the Georgian, South Ossetian, Russian and Russia’s North Ossetian sides. The JCC was also set up on the basis of the 1992 Sochi agreement.
The 1992 Sochi agreement and following decisions by the JCC mandated that the JPKF provide peace and maintain law and order in the conflict zone. But the JPKF’s mandate was modified in February, 1997 through a decision by the JCC and “maintenance of law and order” was removed from the JPKF’s mandate. The JCC cited increasing cooperation between the Georgian and Ossetian law enforcers, as well as the improving crime situation in the conflict zone as the reason behind this decision.
The JPKF is authorized to disarm and disband militia groups operating in the conflict zone, as well as to demilitarize the conflict zone.
The commander of the JPKF is appointed by the Russian side. Currently this position is held by Maj. Gen. Marat Kulakhmetov. The JPKF consists of the three battalions. Each of the three sides – Georgia, Russia and Ossetia - is authorized to have a maximum of 500 servicemen in their peacekeeping battalions. However, the sides are also allowed to deploy additional 300 troops with the permission of the JCC.
Currently, the zone of the JPKF’s responsibility includes a total of 140 Ossetian and 130 Georgian villages. In practice, the JPKF’s activities are mainly concentrated in the Conflict Zone, which includes an area within a 15-km radius from the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali. JPKF’s headquarters is located in Tskhinvali. The Russian peacekeepers in the area have about 10 checkpoints in the conflict zone.
According to the JCC agreement of July 6, 1992, the duration of presence of JPKF is defined by the Heads of States of Russia and Georgia. “The JCC offers its proposals over this issue to the Heads of States,” according to the July 6, 1992 JCC agreement.
Political observers say that Georgia will have to renounce the 1992 Sochi agreement if it wants to cease the JPKF’s activities in the conflict zone. Withdrawal from this agreement will automatically result in ceasing the JCC’s mandate as well.
While recent statements by Georgia's top officials clearly indicate that Tbilisi will demand the withdrawal of the Russian troops, it is not clear from comments made by top Russian officials what the Moscow’s reaction will be.
Russian Defense Minister Sergey Ivanov said on February 3 that the peacekeepers’ fate should not be decided unilaterally by the Georgian side and that the South Ossetian side should also have its say in this issue.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov assured South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoity during a meeting in Moscow on February 2 that Moscow “will protect the interests of its citizens living in South Ossetia.”
Vakhtang Kapanadze, ex-Chief of Staff of the Georgian Armed Forces who served as commander of the Georgian peacekeeping battalion in the South Ossetian conflict zone in 2004, says there may be two major scenarios.
“The withdrawal of the Russian troops might, of course, trigger tensions. Unlike Abkhazia, South Ossetia is like a chessboard with a mix of Georgian and Ossetian villages concentrated in the region and there is no frontline. In these circumstances it will, of course, be more difficult to preserve peace and avoid or prevent provocations,” Vakhtang Kapanadze told Civil Georgia.
He says that it is very easy to provoke military confrontation in a region like South Ossetia.
“The risk of provocations will be high, because in the event of a withdrawal, Russia might try to prove to the world that their pull out was a mistake… After their withdrawal, the Russians might leave ‘time bombs’ there for provocations, as well as an armament for the South Ossetian militias,” he added.
Kapanadze speculates that a second possible scenario may be a refusal by Russia to pull out its troops. “Russia might announce that they will stay there to protect the interests of their own citizens in South Ossetia,” Kapanadze said.
He also argues that “the presence or absence of that one Russian battalion in the conflict zone does not make much difference from a military point of view.”
“In the event of their withdrawal, the power balance in the region will not be changed largely from the military point of view,” Kapanadze added.
Temur Iakobashvili, Vice-President of the think-tank Georgian Foundation for Strategy and International Studies (GFSIS) told Civil Georgia that the withdrawal of the Russian peacekeepers “will most likely be a much longer process than is expected.”
“But I also do not rule out the possibility of a change of the peacekeeping format. Participation of Russian troops’ is, of course, anticipated in this modified format, but I do not rule out the participation of other states as well,” he added.
Iakobashvili also says that by pushing for a withdrawal of the Russian peacekeepers Tbilisi aims at defreezing the conflict resolution process by changing the current status quo. “Now there is no shooting in the region, but the conflict resolution [process] is stalled. The status quo is unacceptable for Tbilisi and the Georgian side’s policy is directed towards an attempt to change this status quo,” he added.
But some analysts fear that Tbilisi’s aspirations to remove the Russian troops could be an attempt by the Georgian side to use force.
“I am afraid that Tbilisi’s attempt to remove the Russian peacekeepers is preparation for solving this conflict through force. We have already witnessed [a similar] attempt in the summer, 2004 [when clashes erupted between Georgian and Ossetian forces]… There are indications of this in statements being made by some top-level Georgian officials,” analyst Shalva Pichkhadze told Civil Georgia.
Most analysts agree that the developments in South Ossetia will largely depend on the overall political intentions of Tbilisi and Moscow.
“Peace is, of course, possible to preserve even without peacekeepers. There were no peacekeepers in Abkhazia for one year after the armed conflict was over; there are no peacekeepers in Karabakh. But the important thing is what the political goal of Tbilisi and Moscow will be after the peacekeepers withdraw,” Pichkhadze says.