Georgian troops are pulling out of the breakaway South Ossetia region a day after winning control of strategic positions near the regional capital Tskhinvali. The military advance represented a short-lived high point in the Georgian government's drive to restore control over the pro-Russian region.
Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili says the pullout from South Ossetia is meant “to give peace a final chance.” For the past week, South Ossetia and Georgia have been teetering on the brink of war. Whereas the Georgian government maintains that the death-toll in the recent heavy fighting has been limited, other sources like the Dutch ecumenical organisation IKV, which maintains daily contact with its Georgian sister organisation, have reported at least 140 people killed. In recent weeks, Tbilisi has repeatedly requested international mediation to end the conflict.
In 1992, the autonomous region of South Ossetia in northern Georgia proclaimed independence following a secessionist war. Since then, the republic of 70,000 people has become a smugglers' paradise under increasing Russian influence. Moscow sent soldiers to the region to join troops from Georgia and South Ossetia in a collective peacekeeping effort. An increasing number of South Ossetians have applied for and received Russian passports, a phenomenon that also occurred in Abkhazia, another Georgian troublespot which is in a similarly isolated position.
The conflict in South Ossetia flared up again early this year after current Georgian President Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili was voted into power and pledged to restore national unity. Georgian forces have meanwhile restored control over the equally rebellious Adzharia region, but South Ossetia and Abkhazia won’t give up so easily.
South Ossetia, with its ethnic patchwork of Georgian and Ossetian villages, is also threatened from inside by intercommunal conflict. Both parties are still talking to each other, despite the collapse of last week's ceasefire agreement.
The exchange of prisoners of war has also continued, and, equally important, both Georgians and Ossetians suspect there is a third hand at work, fanning the flames of conflict. Some Georgians are convinced it's Moscow, prompting parliament in Tbilisi this week to demand the departure of Russian peacekeepers from the region. But Russia has also been talking about a “third party”, an armed gang of around 20 individuals who've been engaged in night-time attacks on both Georgians and Ossetians.
In an interview with the Russian daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Cossack leader Nikolai Kozitsyn admitted his men were fighting in South Ossetia.
Cossacks are ethnic Russians who were often sent to the frontlines in the Caucasus in Tsarist times. But it's unclear whether this is now the case. After all, an escalation of the conflict doesn’t appear to be in Moscow's interest.
Senior Russian political officials have adopted a conciliatory tone. Western mediation is unnecessary in the view of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. The growing western influence in Georgia has been a source of suspicion in Moscow, particularly since the arrival of a few dozen US military advisors tasked with training the Georgian army. Foreign Minister Lavrov says Georgians and South Ossetians first have to make sure that they comply with the ceasefire they agreed to.
Russian President Vladimir Putin doesn't like to talk about the conflict, but on Wednesday, he made an exception. While denying that there was a clash of interests between Georgia and Russia in South Ossetia, he suggested that Georgia only has itself to blame for the current problems because it was “stupid” enough to revoke the autonomous status of South Ossetia in the early 1990s. At the time, on the eve of the collapse of the Soviet Union, South Ossetians were seeking unification with North Ossetia, which still belongs to the Russian Federation. Nonetheless, President Putin says “Moscow will do everything in its power to restore Georgia's territorial integrity”.