CAIRO: Relative calm has returned to the troubled Georgian provinces after the escalation of what was described as a “frozen conflict with Russia.
Georgian Ambassador to Egypt Giorgi Janjgava, however, is skeptical of the ceasefire agreement as well as future relations between Georgia and Russia.
“Who knows what will happen tomorrow? Janjgava said as he threw his arms in the air in anger and frustration.
While there are conflicting reports over which nation triggered the clashes, there is a general consensus that Russia deploying troops to the separatist Georgian region of South Ossetia last week was an aggressive move.
Days after a European-brokered ceasefire agreement was reached on August 12, Russian troops are still patrolling the streets with reports of violence. Meanwhile, Georgian and Russian leaders continued a fiery exchange of statements that are endangering the diplomatic attempts to maintain the fragile ceasefire.
In the small Georgian embassy in Mohandiseen, distress was guised in diplomatic composure. As Georgian TV displaying footage of armed conflict and damaged buildings in the background, the ambassador Janjgava sat down with Daily News Egypt to explain the recent events.
On August 7, the separatist Georgian province of South Ossetia – on the border between Georgia and Russia – saw simmering tensions boil over. The Georgian army stepped in after what the government described as continuous provocation from Russian-backed separatist forces and peacekeepers.
“The [world] needs to know who started it. It’s a provocation, a step by step provocation, Janjgava said.
Recent attempts to negotiate with the separatists failed due to Russian intervention, he said.
The Russians sent “armed forces engineers to construct a railway in South Ossetia, he said. The area is already dominated by Russian peacekeeping forces, a situation Georgia has tried to change for years, he added.
“Is it time to reconstruct the railway now? By the army force? Why this provocation?
It was a plan to lead to the use of force, he said repeatedly.
The Russian Foreign Ministry described the Georgian military intervention as an act of aggression, something Janjgava strongly refutes.
“Georgia’s acts have caused loss of life, including Russian peacekeepers, read the Russian statement. “The situation reached the point where Georgian peacekeepers opened fire on Russian peacekeepers with whom they are supposed to work to carry out their mission of maintaining peace in this region. Civilians, women, children and old people are dying today in South Ossetia, and the majority of them are citizens of the Russian Federation.
By the following day, clashes reached new heights.
Thousands of Russian troops and tanks entered Georgia through South Ossetia. Causalities have been reported on both sides as thousands of civilians caught in the middle struggled to escape either to Russia or Georgia.
On August 9, the conflict spread beyond South Ossetia reaching the city of Gori and edging closer to the capital. South Ossetia’s capital Tskhinvali fell under Russian control following the withdrawal of Georgian forces.
Meanwhile, Abkhazia, another separatist province in northwest Georgia, declared full military mobilization, launching an attack on the Georgian-controlled city of Kodori Gorge.
South Ossetia and Abkhazia declared independence in the 1990s but with no recognition from the international community, including Russia.
In South Ossetia, a third of the population is native Georgians while the majority are Ossetians. Abkhazia was once dominated by Georgians and a mix of Abkhazians and Armenians.
“These separatists say they don’t want to live with us and they prefer to live under the Russian Federation. How come? Which country – independent country – can approve this kind of decision when it sees that behind this puppet – behind the separatists – is the big guy, and this big guy is Russia? Janjgava says.
It is difficult now to figure out what the inhabitants in these two provinces really want, he added, because the ethnicities in the breakaway province of South Ossetia, for example, are intertwined. “One Ossetian village, one Georgian village, one Ossetian village, one Georgian village.
“Now there are only 50,000 people in all South Ossetia. What’s 50,000? It’s two or three streets in Cairo.
“Ossetia wants to be part Russia. But how can you declare independence if the biggest majority of the population is away.
The same applies to Abkhazia. In the 1989 consensus, Georgians were the majority and Abkhazians were only 17 percent. Later in 2003, the consensus showed that the population dropped to less than half, with only 21 percent Georgians.
According to Janjgava, most of the people escaped the troubled province.
The ambassador explains that now the population is estimated at 100,000, dropping from the over 500,000 of the 1990s.
“I’m half Abkhazian. I know the issue well. We lost time. We had the possibility of change. We had the opportunity to do it in a more friendly way, but. he sighs without finishing the sentence, indicating a Russian interest in keeping the conflict unresolved.
He said what Russia did in Georgia should raise red flags for neighboring countries. “‘Look what we did in Georgia. If you think about it, you’ll get the same.’ This is the main message to neighbors, to small countries. The Russian Federation has a lot of problematic areas around them. This is a message: Russia is waking up.
“We can’t fight with the big guy, with the Russians, because it’s 100 times more equipped than we are. It’s a superpower’s army bombing us.
The only hope of ending the conflict is strong Western intervention. And Georgia, with an ongoing bid to join NATO, is looking towards its allies – not just for a diplomatic role but for humanitarian aid during the crisis.
A “strong position of the United States and our friendly allies is what Janjgava is looking for. He’s also waiting for a response from the United Nations Security Council.
Two days into the conflict, the country of four million had no significant backing from the West. On August 9, US President George W. Bush expressed deep concern about the conflict and urged an “immediate halt to the violence.
The statement acknowledged the fighting outside the original area of conflict and called upon Russia to stop the bombings.
But it was only on August 11 that diplomatic efforts were intensified. Bush made a stronger statement, outwardly blaming Russia for the escalation.
“Russia has invaded a sovereign neighboring state and threatens a democratic government elected by its people. Such an action is unacceptable in the 21st Century. The Russian government must reverse the course it appears to be on and accept this peace agreement as a first step toward solving this conflict, the American president said.
On the same day, French-led European efforts formulated a peace proposal, with Georgia’s agreement. But it was on Tuesday, another day of heavy military operations in Georgia, that French President Nicolas Sarkozy got both parties to agree on a ceasefire. Earlier in the day Russia announced that it has achieved is aims and is ending operations in Georgia.
Although the airstrikes, bombings and heavy fighting that marked the first days of the conflict have reportedly come to an end, the conflict is far from over.
Georgia stresses that the attacks haven’t really stopped. The ambassador kept pointing to the TV showing footage of tanks and soldiers patrolling the streets.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on August 13, “I have heard the Russian president say that his military operations are over. I am saying it is time for the Russian president to be true to his word. On Friday Rice was heading to Georgia, a day after the Russian foreign minister said that Georgia could “forget about getting back its two breakaway provinces.
“NATO member states must realize what’s going on, Janjgava noted.
“They must realize that today it’s Georgia, tomorrow it’ll be Ukraine, the day a
fter tomorrow it’ll be another country. We want a real umbrella to ensure that no one can do the same thing Russia did with us.
Admitting the country’s vulnerability in a confrontation with Russia, Janjgava said, “We went out of South Ossetia. We signed a ceasefire [agreement] three days ago.but what happened during these last three days? It’s bombing and bombing of Georgian infrastructure. They destroyed all airports in Gerogia, except one civilian . Russian troops are in Georgia until now .Russian troops are firing 50-60 km away from the capital, out of conflict zone, out of autonomic republic.
“These are occupational forces.
Russian tanks, he continued, are still patrolling the streets and the soldiers are damaging and looting the cities they are in.
“It’s very difficult for me to understand what’s going on. This is an occupation of my country . We need to restore the status quo like it was before the conflict started.
Janjgava didn’t even remotely hint at what analysts have labeled as a late response from Western powers to the conflict. Instead, he proudly explained the support the country has received so far.
“In Georgia on Wednesday the presidents of Poland, Lithuania, Estonia, Ukraine and prime minister of Latvia were there. …They officially said that it was Russian aggression. We have a lot of friends.
And for Georgia, Egypt is also a friend, despite its strong relations with Russia.
“Egypt is a friendly country for us. We understand that Egypt has bilateral relations with US and Russia. We understand the Egyptian position: more than 1.5 million Russian tourists, $2 billion in trade and historical relations with Russia since the Nasser era. We know that. .We know that Egypt always maintains [the concept of] territorial integrity of a country.
The Georgian government is still estimating the total loss of human life and the total cost of the damages. The casualties are over 200 but it is still too early to give an accurate figure, according to the ambassador.
“We will never give up. We will fight, Janjgava said, “we don’t want to be a puppet any more in Russia’s hand.