By Johanna Popjanevski (07/09/2008 issue of the CACI Analyst)

A series of shootings and explosions in the Georgian separatist region of South Ossetia in the last week have given rise to increased tensions between Tbilisi and the secessionist South Ossetian authorities. The first of the recent incidents took place on July 3, when local police chief, Nodar Bibilov, was killed in an explosion outside his home in the South Ossetian village of Dmenisi. In a subsequent press statement, the South Ossetian de facto government accused the Georgian secret service for the attack, which it referred to as a “next step in Georgia’s policy of state terrorism against the people of South Ossetia”.

Only hours later, three Georgian policemen were injured when a convoy, carrying Tbilisi-backed South Ossetian Provisional Administration leader Dimitri Sanakoev, hit a remote-controlled mine while traveling through the conflict zone en route to Batumi. The incident was followed by a shootout between Sanakoev’s bodyguards and unknown gunmen firing from the South Ossetian villages of Kokhati and Sarabuki. Sanakoev himself was not injured in the attack.

Ever since the establishment of the alternative, Sanakoev-led administration in May 2007, the secessionist government in Tskhinvali has disputed its legitimacy and denounced Sanakoev as a puppet of Tbilisi. Tskhinvali has nevertheless denied any involvement in the July 3 assassination attempt. In a July 4 statement, the Russian Foreign Ministry instead accused the Georgian side of staging the attack and exploiting the incident to justify military mobilization in the conflict zone. Russia has on several former occasions directed similar accusations against the Georgian authorities, particularly in connection with clashes in the Abkhaz conflict zone.

The standoff between Georgian and South Ossetian militia escalated on July 4, with overnight exchanges of fire between the South Ossetian-controlled territory and Georgian villages. As a result, two ethnic Ossetians were killed (in Tskhinvali and the village of Ubiat) and several were injured. The Russian federation immediately blamed Tbilisi for the clash and declared it an open act of aggression by the Georgian side. Tbilisi on its part maintained that it had returned fire only after Georgian villages had been attacked by South Ossetian militia. Over the following days, sporadic shooting continued but with no confirmed casualties.

On July 8, the secessionist authorities declared that they had detained four Georgian police officers on an alleged reconnaissance mission in the Znauri district on South Ossetian controlled territory. The Georgian authorities later confirmed that the officers had been arrested but maintained that they had been abducted while patrolling the Kareli district, located on the Georgian side of the administrative border. At a National Security Council emergency session in the afternoon of July 8, Georgian President Saakashvili directed strong criticism towards the secessionist authorities for the incident, which he referred to as kidnapping, and called on the Ministry of Internal Affairs to use all legal means available to secure the release of the detained Georgian officers. Shortly thereafter, the Georgian side announced that the officers had been released and that negotiations regarding their return to Georgia were underway.

Meanwhile, also on July 8, the South Ossetian presidential envoy Dmitry Medoyev reported in Russian media that Georgia had recently evacuated around 300 children from the villages of Tamarasheni, Nuli, Eredvi and Kurta in the Georgian controlled part of the conflict zone, in alleged preparation of an armed attack against South Ossetia. He moreover accused Georgia of expanding its military presence and equipping gun posts in the conflict zone.

The recent incidents in South Ossetia constitute a troublesome set-back in the South Ossetian peace process. Ever since its failure to regain control of South Ossetia by force in 2004, Saakashvili’s administration has gradually moved towards a more incentive-based approach to conflict resolution in the region, rehabilitating areas of the conflict zone and establishing an alternative administration representing the ethnic Ossetian community in Georgia at large. Only last summer, hundreds of ethnic Ossetians assembled in the village of Kurta to express support for the Sanakoev-led administration, indicating success in Tbilisi’s campaign for the hearts and minds of the Ossetian population. The recently erupted violence in South Ossetia, and the simultaneous unrest in Abkhazia over the last few weeks, risks overshadowing such progress and overall clouds the prospect of resolving the conflicts by peaceful means. It is significant, moreover, that such tension takes place just as U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is scheduled to visit Tbilisi. Meanwhile, Moscow continues to exploit the ongoing instability, justifying its military presence in the region through pointing at alleged Georgian aggression against Russian citizens in both South Ossetia and Abkhazia. As western trepidation following Russia’s recent assertive steps does not appear to translate into concrete action, events in the conflict zones are clearly escalating.