The talks scheduled between Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania and South Ossetian de facto President Eduard Kokoev later this week have been cancelled. The reports of “postponing the talks for an indefinite period” were spread late on August 4 when news broke that shots were fired in South Ossetia at a convoy carrying a Russian delegation led by Andrei Kokoshin, chairman of the State Duma Committee for the affairs of the CIS.
The Russian foreign office has already accused the Georgian side of shooting at the parliamentarian. The Georgian side refuted the reports over Georgia’s involvement in the incident and called it “a well-organized provocation.” At a news briefing on August 5 the Georgian Prime Minister reiterated a readiness for a direct dialogue with the Ossetian separatist authorities. Georgian Foreign MInister Salome Zurabishvili argues that the media frenzy is aimed at undermining the expansion of the OSCE observation in South Ossetia – a breakthrough that was deemed possible by the OSCE Head of Mission in Georgia Roy Reeve on August 5.
The details of the incident in South Ossetia are murky. According to Kokoshin’s own entourage, the delegation visited both Georgian and Ossetian checkpoints without any incidents. However, as the convoy was headed towards “illegal Georgian armed formations” they opened fire and Kokoshin had to “retreat under cover of the Ossetian military.” Georgian Deputy Security Minister Gigi Ugulava said at a news briefing on August 4 that the Ossetian side opened fire at the Georgian peacekeepers, who, in turn, returned the fire. “This will always happen in the event of any attack,” Ugulava added. Noting the speed and details with which the Russian agencies reported the incident, Ugulava assumes this was a “provocation” – a masterminded incident to trigger information warfare aimed at faulting the direct, bilateral talks with South Ossetian leadership.
The Russian Foreign Ministry put the blame for this incident squarely on the Georgian side and in a statement on August 4 claimed that “[t]he Georgian side continues not only to violate the achieved agreements, but also infringes upon the security of top Russian officials, whose visit aimed to assist the conflicting sides in the conflict resolution.” Incidentally, after having already pinned the guilt on Georgia, the Russian MFA, in the same statement, called on the Georgian authorities to immediately investigate the incident and punish all guilty parties. “We should stop those people who try to involve Georgia in a new confrontation,” the statement adds.
The Russian Foreign Ministry also stressed that the Georgian side was notified about Kokoshin’s visit to breakaway South Ossetia. “Before his visit to Tskhinvali he [Kokoshin] arrived in Tbilisi [capital of Georgia] and discussed South Ossetia with the top Georgian officials,” insists the Ministry.
However the Georgian side denies having information on Kokoshin’s visit to the breakaway region. “In particular, State Minister for Conflict Resolutions Goga Khaindrava knew nothing about the visit so as to further ensure the security of the Russian delegation,” Gigi Ugulava said.
On August 4, prior to the “Kokoshin’s incident” which led to the postponing of Zhvania’s talks with Kokoev, the Georgian Prime Minister spoke at a government session regarding the proposals by the Georgian side that would be pushed during the talks with the Ossetian separatist leadership. “We will offer the South Ossetian separatists to hold a direct dialogue in order to settle the conflict. Our final goal is to restore Georgia’s territorial integrity, and we will achieve this goal only through peaceful talks,” Zurab Zhvania said. This would have been the first direct contact between the Georgian and South Ossetian leadership without Russian participation. Despite previous information to the contrary, in an interview with the Russian TV company NTV on August 4, Kokoev said that the Georgian side had not notified him regarding the forthcoming talks.
Another potential breakthrough seemed to have been ripening in Ossetia, as the head of the OSCE Mission in Georgia, Ambassador Roy Reeve, visited breakaway South Ossetia on August 4 and held talks with the de facto authorities of South Ossetia. After the talks, Reeve said “the conflicting sides have expressed willingness to expand [the] OSCE mandate. Now, the most important thing is to maintain stability and withdraw extra weapons from the conflict area, since the threat of escalation of tension still persists.”
On July 29 Georgian Foreign Minister Salome Zourabichvili pushed the issue of expanding the OSCE observer mandate in South Ossetia at a session of the OSCE Permanent Council in Vienna which would have allowed for monitoring of the Java district of South Ossetia adjacent to Russia and the Roki Tunnel that links Russia with Georgia. The Georgian side claims these areas, currently beyond peacekeepers control, are used for smuggling arms and armed volunteers from Russia into South Ossetia. The Russian side has refused to support the Georgian initiative in Vienna, stating that it is “unattainable.” According to the OSCE consensus voting rules, this amounts to an effective veto on the decision.
However, Reeve seemed to have clinched an understanding with the South Ossetian leadership on expanding the mandate, and, with the agreement of the two conflicting sides to the arrangement, would have rendered the Russian veto in Vienna politically unjustifiable.
Reeve seemed optimistic on August 5, as he told Rustavi 2 television: “we have discussed in [breakaway] South Ossetia the issue of OSCE’s increased participation in the South Ossetian conflict resolution. The OSCE Permanent Council has not accepted a final decision yet. During this period, it was closely following the recent developments in the Tskhinvali region. Now, the Council is ready to accept a decision over OSCE expansion.”
The OSCE Chairman-in-Office, Bulgarian Foreign Minister Solomon Passy, invited the parties to Sofia, Bulgaria for a meeting at a high political level to discuss measures needed to achieve a peaceful resolution to the conflct. “The meeting initiated by Solomon Passy has already been scheduled for October in Sofia [capital of Bulgaria],” Salome Zourabichvili said on August 5.
It seems that this latest incident involving Kokoshin is set to undermine a possible breakthrough, indicating that Russia is set to undermine any deal which stops short of its direct involvement in the process.