(Eurasianet.org/Interfax)–Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili is wielding a stick and extending a carrot to the separatist region of South Ossetia. Georgian leaders say their actions are driven by a determination to eradicate smuggling and corruption. Government critics–meanwhile–charge that Saakashvili seeks a repeat of the "Ajarian" scenario–in which Tbilisi brings a break-away region back under central control by fomenting popular unrest in the region.
In late May–Tbilisi stepped up pressure on South Ossetia–an autonomous republic of Georgia that secured quasi-independence during a separatist struggle in the early 1990s–by establishing checkpoints at Georgian-Ossetian administrative border crossings. Those checkpoints are designed to cut off the flow of contraband between the region and Georgia proper. South Ossetia has long had a reputation as a smuggler’s haven.
Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania asserted during a May 31 broadcast by Imedi TV that the checkpoints reduced smuggling "to nil," adding that the government’s success in curbing the illicit trade "has made people who have been making a lot of money through these channels nervous."
South Ossetia’s armed forces "have been ordered to destroy any aircraft or regimen’s that cross the border," Interfax cited Eduard Kokoity–the region’s president as yesterday. Georgia is trying to accumulate as many Georgian forces as possible on the border "and to use them if an incident occurs."
Tension escalated May 31 when Tbilisi dispatched Interior Ministry forces in to reinforce the checkpoints. The Russian commander of a joint peacekeeping force in South Ossetia–Maj. Gen. Svyatoslav Nabzdorov–called the Georgian move "a dangerous provocation that could have unpredictable consequences," the Interfax-AVN news agency reported. Georgian officials countered that they deployed reinforcemen’s after Russian peacekeepers threatened to use force to remove the checkpoints–the Civil Georgia web site reported.
South Ossetia–a region of about 100,000 people–set up a pro-Russian autonomous government in the 1990s and Russia maintains troops in the region. Georgia–which last month built police posts near the border–late yesterday withdrew the new units sent to the area–Interfax cited Lieutenant General Valery Yevnevich–a commander with Russian peacekeeping forces–as saying.
Georgia’s President Mikhail Saakashvili said last week–while his government won’t accept the disintegration of Georgia–it is willing to consider models for a state that take into account the interests of regions such as South Ossetia. Georgia last month ousted Aslan Abashidze–the leader of the region of Ajaria–which also set up an autonomous government in the 1990s.