South Ossetia braces for a fight

One of Georgia’s breakaway republics wants to break away yet a little more of Georgia. South Ossetian president Eduard Kokoity officially laid claim Friday to the Truso Gorge, a slope of the Caucasus that lies on the Georgian side of the Russian-Georgian border facing South Ossetia’s northeast.

“This unique place, where many prominent representatives of our people were born, now belongs to Georgia. In principle, this is a territory of North Ossetia,” he said.

According to Kokoity, the gorge is “an indigenous Ossetian land” that the Soviet Union transferred to the then-Georgian Soviet Republic in the 1920s, and which post-Soviet state Georgia has held onto ever since. But now, it is time for Georgia to give it back.

“Today we must raise the issue of returning these lands to Ossetia,” he said.

Georgia does not even consider South Ossetia a country. So how receptive does Kokoity think Georgia will be to a request from South Ossetia for a piece of its land?

Besides, the timing is a particularly bad one for South Ossetia to be asking Georgia for anything. For the last few months, Georgia has been protesting loudly against South Ossetia’s construction of fences along the South Ossetian-Georgian border and Russia’s construction of new military bases in South Ossetia as well as in fellow breakaway republic Abkhazia. Kokoity’s new request for the gorge is nothing less than the addition of insult to injury, and he will have to expect some hostility from Tbilisi on account of it.

In fact, maybe he hoping for some hostility. Over the course of last week, four explosions took place in South Ossetia near the Georgian border. Russian and South Ossetian officials claimed that the cause was mortar shells fired by Georgian forces. But patrols affiliated with the European Union Monitoring Mission—which is policing the border to discourage more hostilities—tell a different story; they say there is no evidence that Georgia fired any projectiles of any kind into South Ossetia. They say that there were explosions, but that there is no telling who, or what, might have caused them.

They could not have found any evidence anyway, though. Russia does not allow the EUMM teams into the territories of Abkhazia or South Ossetia. They are permitted only to skirt the borders. Make of that what you will.

No evidence notwithstanding, Russia’s Defense Ministry issued a warning Saturday that the explosions were an attack from Georgia, and that Russia will respond with full firepower to any more such attacks in the future.

“The August 2008 event developed along similar lines,” the ministry said. “If civilians or troops are threatened, the Russian Defense Ministry reserves the right to use all forces and means at its disposal.”

By its Defense Ministry’s admission, Russia’s leadership is avowedly more than willing to go to war with Georgia again, just as it did in the summer of 2008. All it needs now is for Georgia to do something that could justify it. It need not be a full-fledged attack by Georgian forces against Russia. A small event might suffice. Who is to say that a quarrel over the Truso Gorge will not serve the purpose? Stir new tensions with a further claim to land in Georgia, which will inevitably invite new rounds of virulent denunciations from Georgian politicians, which in return will invite more threatening rhetoric from their counterparts in Russia. All it will take then is for one rogue unit in Georgia, or one separatist militia in South Ossetia, or one unruly group of rioting civilians in either territory, to turn words into action and spark an incident. Then Russia has its own green light to storm into Georgia and be finished with Saakashvili’s government once and for all.

The global community should pay close attention, lest things escalate any further than they already have.

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