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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Troublesome Signs of Pre-August War Events

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Just over a year ago, I wrote in this column about the rumors that were disturbing the carefree, early summer atmosphere in the Georgian capital: predictions of impending war fueled by inflammatory rhetoric and increasingly shrill propaganda, with talk of Georgian spy plane sorties and Russian troop movements. I remember an acquaintance visiting Tbilisi who said my article had almost convinced her to cancel her trip. "Will there really be a war here?" she asked.

"That's what some people say, but probably not," I responded, utterly incorrectly, although I noted rather more presciently in the column that "everyone says they don't want war, but that doesn't mean they're not ready to fight."

Now we are witnessing some of the same fearful murmurs and unsettling premonitions. A series of bomb blasts near Abkhazia; large-scale Russian military exercises not far from the Georgian border; allegations of Moscow-funded political machinations intended to destabilize its wounded neighbor; and the Kremlin dispatching border guards to police the disputed perimeters of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. None of these signs seem to point to an incident-free summer.

Two former U.S. ambassadors to Tbilisi recently warned that Moscow might still have "unfinished business" in Georgia: stopping the country from moving any closer to NATO membership and gaining control of energy supply routes in the Caucasus. The diplomats demanded preventive diplomacy to avert a "new tragedy." Russia has also made it clear that it wants Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili out of office, although Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's desire to "hang Saakashvili by the balls" so far remains unfulfilled.

Some analysts have suggested that the threatened closure of the United Nations and OSCE monitoring missions in Georgia could allow tensions to escalate. Lawrence Sheets, the astute Caucasus project director of the International Crisis Group, has noted that the UN mission acted as a "moderating factor." "All sides should be ready to compromise in order to avoid a new outbreak of hostilities, which would be catastrophic," Sheets said.

Unlike last year, however, nobody is openly predicting a new outbreak of armed conflict. Indeed, some (including Saakashvili) rule it out completely, arguing that it simply wouldn't be in anyone's interests. But that doesn't mean that the men with guns will be abandoning their positions and heading for the beach.

Matthew Collin is a journalist based in Tbilisi.