Tbilisi, Moscow and West Jockey for Position

The Georgian government and its Western allies have reacted to the ongoing escalation of tensions in South Ossetia and Abkhazia by pushing harder for changes to the peacekeeping and conflict-resolution arrangements there.

The push by Tbilisi and Washington for a more diversified format is being blocked by the separatist leaderships in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which are recognized parties to the peace talks and whose consent is required for any significant change, analysts said.

The past several weeks have seen violence flare up along lines separating the Georgian military from separatist forces in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, despite the presence of Russian peacekeepers who operate under the auspices of the Commonwealth of Independent States, according to an agreement signed by all sides in the conflict following two wars in the early 1990s. Several people have been killed in sporadic exchanges of gunfire, and Abkhazia has been shaken by a series of blasts, which the separatist leadership in Sukhumi blames on Tbilisi.

The separatist leadership and Moscow have placed the blame for the escalation on Tbilisi, which has rejected the accusations and countered that the bombings and shootouts are further evidence that Russia had failed to keep the peace or make any progress in its role as co-mediator in the conflicts for more than a decade.

"If the format is not changed, then Georgia will face the necessity of unilateral action against the peacekeepers," Georgian parliament Speaker David Bakradze said Wednesday. Bakradze and other Georgian leaders have repeatedly said Russia is blocking the resolution of the frozen conflicts to discourage Georgia from joining NATO.

Georgia has repeatedly threatened to take action to end Russian-led peacekeeping missions and called for the European Union and United States to get involved in both mediation and peacekeeping.

Changing its position from one that had called for no changes in the format, Washington this week announced that it would support deployment of a new international force in Abkhazia.

The U.S. State Department said Monday that Abkhazia "urgently" needs an international police presence in areas where bombings have killed four people and wounded several more. On Wednesday, visiting U.S. State Secretary Condoleezza Rice said in Tbilisi that "[Russia] needs to be a part of resolving the problem and solving the problem, and not contributing to it," Reuters reported.

Both the United States and EU have accused Russia of taking sides in its peacekeeping and mediation activities in the separatist regions.

Russia has rejected the accusations of bias, even though it has provided tacit support by granting Russian citizenship to tens of thousands of residents in both Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Abkhazia has angrily rejected the U.S. calls for the deployment of an international police force on its territory, while Russia's Foreign Ministry went further, not only criticizing the proposal, but linking the bombings and gunfights to efforts by Georgia and its Western allies to sideline it from mediation.

"The aim of escalating tensions … is to destroy the peacekeeping architecture in the region with the hope of replacing it with new mechanisms that fit Georgia's purposes," the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement issued Wednesday.

Artur Martirosyan, senior program manager with the Mercy Corps' Conflict Management Group, said the dismantling of the mediation format is possible.

"The challenge will be in putting something new in place," said Martirosyan, whose Cambridge, Massachusetts, based group was involved in mediation in contacts between Georgia and Abkhazia. "Here, Georgians have to rely heavily on the input from Europeans and Americans who, as they believe, will contain Russia."

He said Georgia would not have attempted to adjust the format and sideline Russia "without consultations, if not direct guidance," from the United States but noted that not even Washington would be able to impel South Ossetia and Abkhazia to accept a new peacekeeping and mediation approach as long as the breakaway republics enjoy Russia's support. "The status quo will painfully linger on unless [Russia] blinks," he said.

Martirosyan said rejection of the new format by Sukhumi, the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali and Moscow could "push the envelope to the moment of truth."

"Will the United States try enforcement or encourage Georgia to try military options?" he said. "Without these two policy options — enforcement and military operations — the process will reach an impasse that is not in Georgia's interests."

Alexei Malashenko, senior expert with the Carnegie Moscow Center, said Russia could agree to a change in the current arrangements and the eventual resolution of the conflicts if Georgia abandons its aspirations to join NATO.

But whether South Ossetia and Abkhazia would go along remains a question. One possible scenario involves one or both of the separatist provinces trying to exploit what they see as Georgia's brinkmanship to compel Western powers to intervene. This would involve escalating the current hostilities into an all-out war, which they would hope to win with Russia's support, and end Georgia's efforts to draw them back under Tbilisi's control, Martirosyan said.

Georgia has denied it is trying to stir up tensions with the separatist provinces, something that Malashenko said might actually run counter to its interests if it is serious about its proposal, made last month, to divide Abkhazia into zones controlled by Russia and Georgia. The Russian government reportedly examined this proposal with interest, given the level of Russian investment in Abkhazia and the desire to tap the region's resources in construction for the Winter Olympics in Sochi in 2014. "The doves are not interested in any tensions that may disrupt the negotiations over the proposal," Malashenko said in an interview Thursday.

"The recent violence demonstrates that there are, indeed, forces interested in fomenting tensions — the hawks — who realize that their role would be decreased and their influence wane if the conflicts are resolved," he said.