Yesterday's scandal on the Georgian-South Ossetian border that lasted several hours is over. The Georgian task force that entered the 12-km disengagement zone without a warning left it just as suddenly. However, it left many questions unanswered. The main one is: why has Georgia recently been trying to solve every dispute with its territories exclusively through the use force, thereby risking everything?
At first, it would be appropriate to examine how and why the conflict on the border arose. A few days ago, the Georgian Interior Ministry set up five police posts in the disengagement zone near the village of Tkviani on the road connecting the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali with the Georgian district centre of Gori. Tbilisi claimed this move had been taken to end smuggling from Russia to Georgia along the route. The appearance of Georgian policemen in the demilitarised zone led to Russian General Svyatoslav Nabzdorov lodging a protest. He is the commander of the joint peacekeeping forces in the zone, which comprise six Ossetian, three Georgian and three Russian battalions. According to officials in Tbilisi, the general promised to drive the policemen out of the zone, which prompted the introduction of the task force of the Georgian Interior Ministry to protect the newly set up posts.
However, Nabzodrov made no such statement, according to his superior, Lieutenant General Valery Yevnevich, deputy commander-in-chief of the Russian Land Forces. Moreover, any dispute in the zone can be settled by the Joint Control Commission, which will consider an issue raised at a session and then take the necessary measures after coordinating them with the parties. Tbilisi, though, chose not to summon the committee, but opted to use force. Why?
The pure and simple truth is that this form of sabre-rattling has already brought success to the young Georgian authorities. It proved useful both during the "rose revolution" in Tbilisi and in the fight against "the rebellious administration" in Adzharia. It seemed that it would work in Tskhinvali and then in Sukhumi as well. Unfortunately, South Ossetia and Abkhazia are not the same as Batumi.
Adzharia never declared it had seceded from Georgia, nor was any blood spilt. In addition, ethnic Adzharians are very close to Georgians, with the exception of their religious preferences. The situation is completely different in South Ossetia, although both Ossetians and Georgians are Orthodox Christians. When Tbilisi proclaimed its independence from the USSR and Moscow, Tskhinvali refused to follow suit and declared it wanted to cast in its lot with Russia and North Ossetia. The results of the referendum held in the republic on January 19, 1992 confirmed this. In response, the Georgian leadership headed by Zviad Gamsakhurdia sent troops into the republic.
As a military journalist I witnessed the bloodshed caused in South Ossetia by Tbilisi's armed envoys. They destroyed dozens of Ossetian villages, burned and robbed hundreds of houses, killed over a thousand people, including old people, women and children. Several thousands of innocent people lost their homes and property and became refugees. Still, the central government failed to gain control over the rebellious republic. The bloodshed ceased only after Russian peacekeepers were brought into South Ossetia, before they were later joined by Ossetian and Georgian battalions in compliance with the bilateral Dagomys accords of July 24, 1992.
The joint peacekeepers have been stationed in the self-proclaimed republic for twelve years, and during this time it has not seen any serious inter-ethnic strife. However, Ossetians say they have not forgotten the damage Georgia's troops inflicted on them. People in the Caucasus always remember insults, especially when they are related to blood feuds. So any impartial expert understands that even if Tbilisi manages to bring Tskhinvali back under its jurisdiction, it will not happen soon, and especially not by use of force.
The world knows a number of examples of divided countries. Some have existed for fifty or sixty years, such as South and North Korea, China and Taiwan, while others are younger (Greek and Turkish Cyprus). In any case, it requires titanic patience, and colossal diplomatic, economic and political efforts to prevent new hostilities and to unite a country by means of common consent and mutual interest rather than force of arms. There is no such interest or consent in South Ossetia or in Abkhazia, where the situation is similar. Why cannot Tbilisi understand that?
There can be different answers to the question. One lies on the surface. The young Georgian authorities secured victory too easily over Adzharian leader Aslan Abashidze (not without Russia's assistance). Now Tbilisi evidently wants to expand on this success to prove that Georgia's new president, Mikhail Saakashvili, can enter in the history of his native country like Tsar David IV (1073-1125), who united the Georgian lands.
However, a thousand years later, Georgia and the world around it are different. Weapons and armed pressure can achieve a great deal, but not everything. Even Tsar David, who the people called "the Builder", did not rely on his sword alone, remembering, as historians say, the economic and trade benefits of the union of Georgian princedoms.
But hardly anyone is likely to be interested in the union with a government that cannot supply its people with gas and electricity, cannot restore industry or put railways into operation. Probably, that is where they should start from, instead of rattling weapons on the borders of the self-proclaimed republic. Of course, it is more difficult to restore the economy than to organize military parades, to hold tactical live firing exercises on one border after another, to bring a task force back and forth.
Tbilisi now has to make a choice. Russian peacekeepers, as well as their South Ossetian colleagues, have shown that they have strong nerves. None of them reacted to the provocation; they did not start turning heavy military vehicles against the Georgian troops or start shooting. After all, the Georgians were just making some noise, becoming the talk of the media and a headache for politicians. This was not for the first time. And at the end of the day, they went home.