3 March 2006
Georgian officials have made it clear that they neither support nor trust Russia’s military peacekeeping force in South Ossetia. But what are the alternatives to this presence? Georgian ministers and members of parliament have advocated two different alternatives. Both assume that the Russians will abandon their interests in South Ossetia, and both invite more questions than answers.
The first alternative to the current, mostly Russian Joint Peacekeeping Force (JPKF) is an international peacekeeping force (PKF), perhaps led by the United Nations, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). On such an international force, the number of Georgian and Russian soldiers is unlikely to be greater than that on any other PKF in the world.
Georgian officials know, however, that they are not likely to be offered a truly international peacekeeping force. PKFs from the United Nations and the OSCE are dead ends for achieving Georgian goals in South Ossetia because Russia retains veto power in both organizations. NATO might offer an outlet, but only if the conflict seriously escalates to the level of Kosovo in 1999.
Even if NATO offered its services, the organization might then recommend independence for South Ossetians as soon as its peacekeeping mission is over. As a delegated international arbiter, NATO would take the reins out of Russia’s hands, but it could decide (much as in Kosovo’s case) that Tskhinvali belongs to North Ossetia, or belongs to no one.
The second alternative is a contingent of Georgian soldiers and forces from countries who are allies with Georgia which will keep the peace and implement the policies that Russia was either too incompetent or deceitful to see through. In such a scenario, Georgia would likely seek help from post-Soviet allies like Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan or Latvia.
The second alternative may work more smoothly for Georgia retaining some control in South Ossetia, but it is by far the more dangerous of the two. Although Georgia’s complaints about the performance of Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia are justifiable, Tbilisi hopes to replace the Russian peacekeepers with Georgian soldiers whose bias about the conflict will be just as strong.
Just as Moscow did, Tbilisi would likely include a token number of foreign soldiers (maybe even a few Russians) to create the appearance of an international PKF. But the Georgian military – headed by Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili, a native of the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali — would retain control over the mission. Most Georgians cannot conceive that their soldiers would behave like the Russians in South Ossetia, but Georgians have too large a stake in this conflict to serve as disinterested peacekeepers.
Protective measures against harassment and ill treatment would have to be designed for the 45,000 ethnic Ossetians, who welcomed-Russian offers of citizenship. Otherwise, ethnic Georgians living in South Ossetia (who for years have been harassed by all of South Ossetia’s de facto administrations and militias) could well take their revenge.
In this alternative, the OSCE has also – perhaps, unwittingly – played a role.
The OSCE is known for its support of Georgia’s territorial integrity and affirmed this support when it recognized parliament’s “sovereign right . . . to pass a resolution on peacekeeping operations in Georgia.” Yet more telling was US Ambassador Julie Finley’s recommended alternative to the Russian peacekeepers: “We call on Georgia to contribute its full complement of forces to maintain the proper balance within the JPKF.”
Instead of simply supporting a “peaceful resolution” through the vague “process of demilitarization,” the OSCE claims that in case of a Russian withdrawal, a group of Georgian soldiers would be best suited for a South Ossetia PKF.
Moscow, though, is in no position to label a potential Georgian PKF as biased, because this would be akin to admitting its own peacekeepers’ natural biases, as well. And to date, the Russian government has had nothing but praise for its JPKF in South Ossetia.
To get what it wants, Georgia needs tremendous international support, and that will only come as Russia becomes more aggressive, which, in turn, depends on Georgia’s ability to paint the Russians as the “bad guys.”
This extremely dangerous game requires Georgian leaders to provoke Russia, then retreat; provoke again, then retreat again, hoping that Russia will make the temperamental mistake of biting the hook while Georgia is actually retreating, as this would illustrate to the West that Georgia has become the victim of Russian neo-imperialism.
Nonetheless, Georgian leaders know that their nation can never fight Russia by conventional means to recapture South Ossetia. The Georgian parliament’s February 15 resolution wisely makes no reference to a timetable for the withdrawal of the Russian JPKF, as Tbilisi has learned that Moscow seldom backs down from a confrontation if the only alternative is to retreat with its tail tucked between its legs. [For details, see the EurasiaNet archive]. Ultimately, Tbilisi’s drastic attempts to manipulate its environment will only bring more danger to South Ossetians.