MINELRES: Caucasus Reporting Service No. 271: South Ossetia Standoff Continues

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WELCOME TO IWPR'S CAUCASUS REPORTING SERVICE, No. 271, 27 January, 2005

CAUCASUS NEWS UPDATE JANUARY 26

SOUTH OSSETIA STANDOFF CONTINUES  Tskhinval blames Georgia for
"provocations" designed to undermine the breakaway republic's
credibility.
By Irina Keleskhaeva in Tskhinval

ARMENIAN ATOMIC DILEMMA  Aging nuclear power station is a vital source
of
energy for Armenia, but its future is uncertain given its location on
geological and political faultlines.  By Kerob Sarkisian in Yerevan,
Sophie
Bukia in Tbilisi and Idrak Abbasov in Baku

CHECHNYA'S TICKING RADIATION BOMB  Dangerous radioactive cobalt lies
practically unguarded in a Grozny chemical factory wrecked by war,
poverty
and lawlessness.  By Amina Bisaeva in Grozny

AZERBAIJAN: HAJ DREAMS SHATTERED  Rivalry between two religious bodies
blamed for thwarted Haj hopes of hundreds of Azerbaijani Muslims.  By
Gulnaz
Gulieva and Rufat Abbasov in Baku

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...................................

SOUTH OSSETIA STANDOFF CONTINUES

Tskhinval blames Georgia for "provocations" designed to undermine the
breakaway republic's credibility.

By Irina Keleskhaeva in Tskhinval

Angry villagers in South Ossetia's ethnic Georgian enclave of
Tamarasheni have barricaded the settlement and are protesting loudly at
a decision to hand a man suspected of murdering two of their number over
to the Russian-led Joint Control Commission, JCC.

"All of South Ossetia is defending this man!" one villager said
bitterly. "Is murdering a Georgian not considered to be a crime here?"

IWPR was only able to reach Tamarasheni by travelling with an escort of
armed peacekeepers, as it is presently no longer safe for Ossetians to
travel through the region's Georgian enclaves.

All routes to and from Tskhinval had been sealed off by Tamarasheni's
Georgians on January 25 in protest against Tbilisi's decision to hand
murder suspect Alexander Pukhaev over to the JCC in the South Ossetian
capital.

Georgian police had been holding the Ossetian suspect in custody in
connection with the deaths of two ethnic Georgians from Tamarasheni. 

"The people Pukhaev murdered were Georgian construction workers," said
one Tamarasheni villager, speaking to IWPR on condition of anonymity.
"But Ossetian television tells the public every evening that he is
innocent."

The latest upsurge in tension in this troubled region was sparked by
Pukhaev's arrest by Georgian police on January 19.  In response,
Ossetians allegedly kidnapped Georgian police officer Lado Chalauri. The
situation escalated when the officer's relatives apparently seized
several Ossetians in retaliation.

The JCC, which was formed recently to defuse mounting tensions between
Georgia and its breakaway former autonomous region of South Ossetia,
held a series of negotiations which ended with the safe release of all
those being held. However, part of the deal included handing Pukhaev
from Georgian to JCC custody - angering Tamarasheni and triggering the
barricading of the village.

"At our meeting [with the Georgian side] we have also agreed to exchange
Georgians for Ossetians who have already been convicted and imprisoned,"
said JCC co-chair Boris Chochiev.

But despite these promising results, few in Tskhinval believe that this
is the beginning of a real breakthrough.

South Ossetia's deputy foreign minister Alan Pliev told IWPR that he
believed the Georgians were "deliberately provoking instability".

"They are presenting [us] as a pack of criminals and separatists unable
to keep things under control," he said. "They seem to think the only way
to restore law and order in South Ossetia is to make it part of Georgia
again."

Pliev believes the current crisis was engineered to give Georgian
president Mikhail Saakashvili more leverage in the run-up towards his
January 26 address to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of
Europe, PACE, where he presented his new settlement plan for the
Georgian-Ossetian conflict.

In it, Saakashvili promises extended autonomy for South Ossetia, which
broke away from Georgia in the early Nineties and remains unrecognised.

The Georgian government proposes that South Ossetia has its own
parliament; its ethnic culture is conserved; and, in the future, pledges
to grant the territory free economic zone status and simplified
border-crossing procedures with Russia.

However, under the Georgian settlement, Tbilisi keeps full
responsibility for borders, defence, public security and order.

"If South Ossetia declines this initiative, no one will have the right
to accuse Georgia of ignoring the peaceful settlement effort,"
Saakashvili told the PACE meeting.

However, on the same day as the address, South Ossetia's president
Eduard Kokoity dismissed the proposal as an attempt "to complicate" the
Georgian-Ossetian settlement process. 

"The Ossetian people determined the status of South Ossetia at the 1992
referendum, having voted 99.8 per cent in favour of independence from
Georgia," he said. 

"Saakashvili would be acclaimed as the national hero of South Ossetia if
he officially recognises its independence. This would be a great boost
to his stock as a liberally minded ruler. Ossetians would welcome him to
Tskhinval and strew his path with roses."

But analysts believe that Georgia's real plans for the region differ
markedly from those unveiled in Strasbourg.

Conflict management consultant Dina Alborova said, "Saakashvili hopes to
convince the international community that South Ossetia is ruled by
criminals, that people get kidnapped here, and Georgians are targeted.
According to [him], this calls for the deployment of Georgian troops. 

"Villages mostly populated by Georgians are frequently visited by
emissaries from Tbilisi, who provoke and incite unrest, urging the
locals to rally and close roads."

South Ossetian officials confirm that many kidnappings do take place,
but claim that the perpetrators are unknown.

Meanwhile, the continued uncertainty over the final status of the area
is having an effect on South Ossetia's citizens.

"Our government has been excessively passive and weak," said Zaur
Gagloev, a languages student at the state university in Tskhinval. 

"The roads are still blocked by the Georgians. Why can't we make them go
away? People are tired of this uncertainty - it's time to make tough
decisions that would really help relieve the tension."

Irina Keleskhaeva is a freelance journalist in Tskhinval.

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CAUCASUS REPORTING SERVICE No. 271