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Kokoev Blinked
/ 9 Jul.'04 / 17:50
Commentary by Jaba Devdariani

Vanati Incident Gives Georgian Authorities Higher Moral Ground

 Eduard Kokoev.
The Situation in South Ossetia reached its nadir on July 8, when the Ossetian units disarmed and detained some 46 Georgian peacekeepers in the village of Vanati. The policemen were then escorted to the Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali and paraded on a main street, after which they were forced to kneel at a gunpoint - while these images were transmitted worldwide by the Russian TV company NTV.

Georgians have a feeling of a déjà vu: once again, the embattled leader of a restive autonomy loses all legitimacy by behaving in a sickeningly uncivilized and illogical manner.

Aslan Abashidze, the ex-leader of the Adjarian autonomy once claimed that he wanted a united Georgia, but Saakashvili was a dangerous maniac. Those statements became extremely hollow when Abashidze blew the bridges connecting Adjara to Georgia. Edward Kokoev claimed Georgia plans aggression, attacked the Georgian peacekeepers at daybreak, and publicly humiliated them.

The South Ossetian leadership failed to capitalize on an essential moment of weakness in the Georgian government - a confrontation between the Interior Minister Irakli Okruashvili and the State Minister Goga Khaindrava that erupted after the detention of a Russian arms convoy. Instead of employing a subtle public relations strategy, Kokoev made a bet on a brunt force, and is now posed to lose his hand.

This recent escalation has helped the Georgian government to put its act back together. Indeed, an intervention by Saakashvili, who dismissed the squabble between the ministers, has helped. Khaindrava may not be good at the diplomatic nuance, but he knows about bravery - he spent a critical night yesterday in Tskhinvali, close to the arrested peacekeepers as a kind of a hostage himself - assuring Ossetians that Georgia is not planning a military onslaught.

After this point Kokoev is likely to experience the kind of conflict resolution that Saakashvili mastered during two "Rose Revolutions". As one Georgian newspaper put it today, Kokoev is seeing "that the fuse is burning maddeningly fast." Yesterday’s detention of the Georgian soldiers has triggered an immediate reaction by the US State Department, which condemned the act as "deplorable" treatment of the Georgian peacekeepers who, spokesperson Richard Boucher said, were "the hostages." OSCE Chairman in Office has also called Kokoev "to release the detainees immediately."

The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, for the first time since the tensions started to grow in South Ossetia, indicated that the responsibility party was in fact the South Ossetian authorities. Russian peacekeeping commander Svyatoslav Nabdzorov, who is hard to suspect of pro-Georgian sympathies, had to personally stand in charge of the armored detachment in order to secure the Georgian villages.

Certainly, the situation in South Ossetia is extremely tense. The first shootout already occurred as the checkpoint of the Georgian peacekeepers came under fire. Two soldiers were reportedly wounded.

At this point, the main concern of Tbilisi is to avoid military engagement, and this is the policy that it pursues consciously. Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania made it clear that Tbilisi would not use force until an undefined "point of no return" was reached; Kokoev still has time to return to the negotiating table.

The problem is, at this point, it makes little sense for Kokoev to return to this table - Georgia has already obtained the higher moral and political ground. Reports say that Georgia has moved the interior troops, together with Ministry of Defense backup forces, closer to South Ossetia. But it is wrong to assume that the intention is to attack Tskhinvali. The military is used as a deterring force, as was shown in the situation in Adjara, and merely indicates that any use of force by Kokoev would be proportionally rebuked.

Let us hope there will be no need.

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