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Georgian Deputy FM: Russia Exclusively to Blame Over Latest Tensions

By Ia Meurmishvili, Pete Cobus August 31, 2019

A senior Georgian official Friday said demands by Russian-backed separatists in occupied South Ossetia that Georgia remove a police observation tower could cause a "serious confrontation" between the breakaway regions and Georgian authorities.

Deputy Foreign Minister Lasha Darsalia, in a telephone interview with VOA, said Moscow is exclusively to blame for the recent escalation in tensions, which follow the Georgian government's construction in recent weeks of an observation tower inside Georgian-controlled territory near the administrative boundary line between Russian-occupied South Ossetia and the rest of Georgia.

Georgia raised its concerns Friday about the risk of "serious confrontation" after Russian-backed separatists in the occupied region of South Ossetia demanded Thursday night that Georgian authorities remove the observation tower and gave the government until early Friday morning to comply.

Georgian police had quickly erected the tower after observing the "mobilization of military equipment and personnel" by Russia near the village of Chorchana, in Georgian territory, about three kilometers south of territory controlled by the Russian-backed South Ossetian de facto authorities.

Russia has been engaged in a process of "borderization" in the Gori region, where the Russia-Georgia War happened in 2008. The Russian occupation forces have been erecting fences and other barriers to separate land it occupies from the remainder of Georgian territory.

VOA footage shot from the Georgian police observation post Friday morning shows a partially constructed barrier along the edge of Chorchana. The new Russian barrier is the first in the Khashuri region. Georgian police set up the observation tower overlooking the wall construction site to determine whether it crossed into Georgian-controlled land, which would physically expand the footprint of Russian-occupied territory.

Pro-Russian separatists have objected to the police presence, saying the observation tower is right next to a village on South Ossetian territory called Uista, known as Tsnelisi in Georgia.

"I hope Georgia ... will do everything to resolve the instability they caused by their illegal actions," the breakaway region's leader, Anatoly Bibilov, was quoted as saying by Russian agencies. "Resolving this issue by force would be highly undesirable."

Georgia's Deputy Foreign Minister Lasha Darsalia says no law has been broken.

"Our position is that this is central government-controlled territory, and the Georgian government is not considering any withdrawal of the police position from the area," he told VOA's Georgian Service in an exclusive interview Friday. "At the same time, we all have to work together toward the de-escalation process."

Russia in 'full control'

Darsalia also said that, despite the fact that it is de facto authorities of the breakaway region who are protesting the Georgian police presence, is only Moscow that is responsible for the situation on the ground.

"I want to highlight that I really don't distinguish de facto authorities from the only one [Russia], which has full responsibility for the situation and de-escalation processes there," he said. "The Russian Federation is the one who exercises full control of these territories. This is important to highlight."

He also said the situation on the ground, while still tense, was currently "more calm as compared to this morning."

The Georgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs condemned Russia's mobilization of military equipment in the conflict zone and in a tweet called the latest actions "yet another provocation."

Earlier Friday, Kakha Kemoklidze, Georgia's National Security Council chief of staff, told VOA "this is an average incident that requires a pragmatic, calm approach, and activation of all diplomatic means at our disposal.

"The village of Chorchana – before and after the 2008 Russia-Georgia war – was in territory controlled by the government of Georgia," he added. "On this territory, the EU monitoring mission, as well as Georgian police mobile patrol units, were conducting operations with varying intensity." Kemoklidze said the statement by the Russian-backed South Ossetian authorities that "Georgian police have 'started to appear' is not newsworthy: Georgian police have always been present here, although there was no permanent observation point."

Kemoklidze also said he anticipates that "we can resolve this through a dialogue – at least, that is the great desire of the Georgian government."

On Thursday, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) had said in a statement that "recent developments along the administrative boundary line had negatively impacted the overall security situation."

Tensions in this region escalated in August 2008, when Russia invaded South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and penetrated deeper into Georgian territory, before agreeing to an EU-brokered cease-fire. Shortly after the invasion, Russia recognized these territories as independent states, as did Syria, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Nauru sometime later.

No other countries recognize the independence of these territories, and instead consider Russia's ongoing military presence as an "illegal occupation" of 20% of Georgia's sovereign territory.

The U.S. State Department has issued multiple statements over the preceding two weeks saying that it has been "monitoring reports of military buildup" in the area and calling on Russia to "prevent further escalation."

This story originated in VOA's Georgian Service. Nino Dalakishvili contributed reporting from the border checkpoint near Chorchana, Georgia.

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