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An eerie tension in the Caucasus
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A year after the five-day war between Russia and Georgia transformed the region's geopolitical landscape, reports coming out of South Ossetia, the breakaway republic that Russia later recognised, are eerily similar.  


News of shelling, artillery fire, and aggression on both sides are stoking tensions amid fears of a new conflict, even as Russia increases its efforts to rebuild Tskhinval, the Ossetian capital that Georgia attacked on August 7, 2008.  


The war of words, meanwhile, is far from over - with Twitter, LiveJournal, and Facebook all suffering reported hack attacks late last week, apparently linked to the conflict.  


President Dmitry Medvedev travelled to Vladikavkaz, across the border in North Ossetia, on the August 8 anniversary, and said that Russia would not reverse its recognition of South Ossetian and Abkhazian independence.  


Addressing the 58th Army, Medvedev thanked veterans of last year's war and said that those in Georgia who issued "criminal orders" to attack Tskhinval would be "punished".  


Medvedev also sent a telegram to French President Nicolas Sarkozy, saying that Saakashvili's actions "remain a cause for serious concern" and calling for "binding agreements on the non-use of force between Georgia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia."  


He urged the French president to help halt military aid to Georgia.  


Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who last year called Georgia's actions in South Ossetia "genocide," was even more pointed in his assessment of Saakashvili's actions. Putin told journalists in Sochi the Georgian regime could not be trusted.  


"I personally urged them to be more patient, to garner trust and authority in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. What were their answers? ‘Yes, yes, we understand, and we will do that.' What did they do in practice? The exact opposite."  


Georgian officials presented a report last week that reiterated Tbilisi's claim that Russian military convoys entered South Ossetia on Aug. 7. The report cited evidence presented to an EU commission that South Ossetia was preparing for military action in advance by evacuating officials and civilians.  


"The most important conclusion of the report is seeing the attempts of the Russian Federation to undermine the Georgian state by using separatists and separatism as a tool," The Associated Press quoted Georgian minister Temur Yakobashvili as saying in presenting the report.  


Meanwhile, South Ossetia's president, Eduard Kokoity, dismissed his Cabinet last week and appointed a Russian construction mogul as prime minister, in an apparent signal that the authorities were struggling to make headway in reconstruction efforts. On a recent visit to South Ossetia, Medvedev criticised reconstruction efforts as slow and ineffectual. Russia pledged $620 million in reconstruction aid, but critics of Kokoity say that as much as half of that money has been lost.  


The appointment of Vadim Brovtsev as prime minister was seen as a direct result of Medvedev's visit. The previous prime minister, Aslanbek Bulavtsev, was officially dismissed for health reasons, but according to sources in the South Ossetian government cited by Kommersant, he was removed because of numerous conflicts with Kokoity.  


South Ossetian officials stressed their republic's reliance on Russian aid. "Without Russian aid, it would have been very difficult for South Ossetia to normalise," Dmitry Medoyev, the republic's ambassador to Russia, said.  


Asked about Medvedev's criticism, Medoyev said that shortcomings were inevitable given the level of damage. "The situation is such that we cannot name a certain date by which everything will be rebuilt. ... [It] will take several years. ... Sometimes there are problems, like not enough construction materials, or contractors not fulfilling their obligations."  


While both the South Ossetians and Georgian reported attacks in the days leading up to the anniversary, none were independently verified.  


South Ossetia's press ministry reported artillery fire in the village of Plavi on Aug. 4, while Georgia's Interior Ministry said its border post in the Gori district had likewise been shot at, RIA Novosti reported.  


Russia's Defence Ministry said Tskhinval had come under grenade and mortar attacks several times since July 29, but Georgia's Defense Ministry has denied these allegations.  


Anatoly Nogovitsin, the deputy chief of Russia's General Staff, said that shipments of arms to Georgia were a sign that the country might be preparing for another military attack. US Assistant Secretary of Defence Alexander Vershbow has denied claims that the US was supplying Georgia with arms, but the Russian Foreign Ministry insists that Georgia is still receiving US military aid.  


Russian officials differed, meanwhile, on the threat of a new conflict.  


"The situation really is tense," Foreign Ministry spokesperson Andrei Nesterenko said in a statement on August 3. "The provocations of the Georgians ahead of the anniversary are continuous."  


Nogovitsin, meanwhile, dismissed Georgia's military capability. "Currently Georgia isn't capable of putting together an armed force like last year in such a short period of time," RIA Novosti quoted him as saying.  


On the Georgian side, "preventive diplomacy" has reduced the danger of new fighting flaring up this month, The AP quoted a Georgian national security official as saying.  


The back-and-forth of claims and counter-claims echoes the war of words that escalated into last year's war.  


The Georgian side puts its civilian casualties at 228, while 184 servicemen are said to be dead or missing. About 25,000 Georgians have been displaced from their homes in South Ossetia, Georgia says. Russia says that 162 South Ossetian civilians were killed and 255 were wounded, and 48 servicemen, including 10 peacekeepers, died in action.  


A total of 5,143 South Ossetians were displaced from their homes, according to Russian government figures.  


The conflict caused relations between Russia and the West to plummet to a new post-Cold War low, with military cooperation halted with NATO and the United States.  


The war has also had an effect on former Soviet republics in dispute over other breakaway republics.  


"We can say that a new status quo has formed in the Caucasus region" as a result of the war, said Sergei Markedonov, a regional security analyst at the Institute of Political and Military Analysis. "First of all, the old format of regulating conflict no longer exists. Second, the fact that unrecognised republics have become partially recognised seriously affects the North Caucasus and the post-Soviet space in general."  


Anna Arutunyan, 

Moscow News. 

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