The parliamentary Committees on Defense and Security and Foreign Affairs will gather on Monday for the last time before a crucial hearing over Russian peacekeepers takes place on February 15. At the committee hearings on Monday State Minister for Conflict Resolution Issues Giorgi Khaindrava will deliver, as officials put it, “a detailed report” on cases of violations of the mandate by the Russian peacekeeping troops stationed in the South Ossetian conflict zone.
Although it is clear that the report given by the State Minister will be extremely negative about the Russian peacekeepers’ performance, it is not yet known what the result of the February 15 parliamentary hearings will be.
Ongoing hard line rhetoric against the Russian peacekeepers being voiced by most parliamentarians, from both the opposition and ruling parties, indicate that the Georgian legislative body will most likely demand that the peacekeepers withdraw. But the executive authorities seem to be more cautious in recent statements.
President Saakashvili, who has the final say on the matter, has not yet even voiced his position over this issue. He is expected to make an annual state of the nation address to the Parliament on February 14.
Speaking at the OSCE Permanent Council on February 9 Georgian Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili demanded a prompt change to the mandate of the Joint Peacekeeping Forces (JPKF) stationed in South Ossetia. He said that it would have been “more logical” to include only Russian and Georgian battalions in the JPKF and to expand its area of responsibility.
Currently, the JPKF includes three battalions – from Russia, Georgia and Ossetia - and its area of responsibility does not cover two vitally important territories: the Java district, which is regarded as a stronghold for the South Ossetian militias and the Roki Pass, which links breakaway South Ossetia with neighboring Russia’s North Ossetian Republic. Tbilisi claims that the Roki Pass is a main route for arms trafficking and smuggling in the region.
He said that these measures are “critical,” as Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Nogaideli plans to report to the Georgian Parliament on February 15 about whether the JPKF is fulfilling its obligations.
“If these proposed steps are successful, then the Prime Minister would be in a position to report improvements to the Parliament in the performance of the JPKF,” Gela Bezhuashvili said.
Speaking at the Summit of the Parliament Speakers from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) on February 10 in Kiev Georgian Parliamentary Chairperson Nino Burjanadze called for a prompt change of the existing peacekeeping operation through involvement of other states within it.
“We will be glad if our Ukrainian friends or other states participate in it,” Burjanadze said, adding that Tbilisi also does not rule out the presence of Russian servicemen in this international peacekeeping mandate.
Opposition parliamentarians are strongly insisting that the Russian peacekeepers withdraw from the conflict zone.
“I hope the [parliamentary] majority will strongly adhere to its position and the Georgian parliament will unanimously support the resolution calling for the launch of a withdrawal of the Russian peacekeepers,” MP Davit Berdzenishvili, one of the leaders of opposition Republican Party, told Civil Georgia.
“We were supporting a demand for an immediate launch of their withdrawal four months ago, when the Parliament passed a resolution on peacekeepers [in October, 2005]. These [four] months offered us no results, because as it was anticipated there has been no progress in the peacekeepers’ performance,” he added.
MP Berdzenishvili expressed hope that the U.S. position calling on the Georgian Parliament for caution over peacekeepers “will not influence the Georgian authorities' final decision.”
U.S. Ambassador to the OSCE Julie Finley said at the Permanent Council in Vienna on February 9 that "a request for the peacekeepers to leave without anything in their place may be destabilizing."
“The U.S. calls for caution and this is absolutely understandable, as we should not yield to any provocation and we should peacefully say goodbye to the Russian troops. Withdrawal of the Russian peacekeepers itself aims at preserving peace in the region,” MP Berdzenishvili said.
MP Zviad Dzidziguri of the opposition Conservative Party says that the withdrawal of the Russian peacekeepers will help solve the conflict.
“I can firmly state that on February 15 we will definitely support a resolution calling for a withdrawal of the Russian peacekeepers… After passing this resolution it is of vital importance that the authorities carry out a very well-planned policy. It is very important for us to establish direct dialogue with the Ossetians without the Russians’ involvement,” MP Dzidziguri told Civil Georgia. Both the Republicans and Conservatives are united in the Democrat Front parliamentary faction.
Leader of opposition New Rights party MP Davit Gamkrelidze says that he also supports the withdrawal of the Russian peacekeepers, “but I am afraid that the authorities are not prepared for this,” he added.
“And that is why we sometimes do not hear clear messages coming from the executive authorities about this issue, which makes us think that the government is now hesitating,” MP Gamkrelidze told reporters on February 9.
But leader of the parliamentary majority MP Maia Nadiradze of the ruling National Movement party downplayed the New Rights’ fears and said that the authorities have a plan of action “and know exactly what our next steps will be.”
“Of course I am not going to speak about this plan, because it is not necessary to let everyone know about it,” MP Nadiradze said on February 9.