In the aftermath of the Beslan school siege and as political relations hit an all-time low, political commentators say fear of a deadly conflict has increased dramatically among the populations of South Ossetia and Georgia.

Reacting to a growing military escalation, the government in capital Tbilisi is not mincing its words: Russia, it says, is supporting separatists in Abkhazia and South Ossetia to destabilise the region and give it a free hand to pursue its strategic ambitions.

Georgia's Deputy Defence Minister David Sikharulidze voiced the concern concisely this week: "We know that Russia will unfortunately try to use this school tragedy to pursue its own agenda in the Caucasus."

And when Moscow reserved the right to strike out pre-emptively anywhere in the world to defend itself against threats to its security, Georgian political commentators felt all the more uneasy.

Drastic solution?

The vice-president of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies says Moscow may "lump" all its problems and ambitions in the region together and attempt a violent militaristic solution.

Over 112 South Ossetian villages
destroyed and 1000 killed in 1991

Speaking to Aljazeera.net on Thursday, Temuri Yakobashvili said Beslan may end up becoming the central justification for the Kremlin to push for Russian control of the entire region.

"Despite the fact that it makes no geographic sense for Russia to seek to absorb South Ossetia - the signs are all there for an aggressive development in bilateral relations. Moscow should understand that the North Caucasus is Russian, the South is not," he said.

War of words

Political tensions were strained last Thursday when Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told Voice of Russia radio that the killing of 335 children in Beslan may be linked to Georgian policy towards its breakaway provinces.

He went on to say Chechen fighters had moved into South Ossetia from the nearby Pankisi Gorge, an allegation made by one Russian MP - Mikhail Markelov - even before the school siege.

A day later, Moscow announced that Russian forces stationed in Georgia's South Ossetia would shortly begin two days of military exercises, ending on 16 September.

Relations then hit rock bottom when Georgia's interior minister told soldiers involved in massive exercises by the South Ossetian "border" on Tuesday that the enemy was only 20km away - and pointed north. 

Georgian, Ossetian and Russian
negotiations have made no progress

Within hours, Georgian Defence Minister Giorgi Baramidze was confirming media reports that Russian helicopters had violated the country's airspace, despite Moscow's denials.
 
And South Ossetia's pro-Moscow leadership has also joined the fray, reporting Georgian troops and tanks had moved to within just 4km of the Ossetian village of Tsinagari on Wednesday.

Cold shoulder

Evidence of deteriorating relations is not limited to troops, tanks and helicopter deployments. From 1 October not a single Georgian aircraft will be given clearance to land in Russia.

The new policy comes as Moscow reopens a direct rail route to the main city of the breakaway region of Abkhazia.

And Russian media continue to allege that one of the Beslan hostage-takers is still hiding in the Kodori Gorge - in Georgia's other breakaway province of Abkhazia.

Moscow adds that there are still Chechen separatists in the Pankisi Gorge, on the border with Chechnya - an allegation that led US State Department spokesman Richard Boucher to intervene and reject Moscow's claim.

Rebuff

But the "Chechen hideout" claims are not new and Tbilisi is used to dealing with them. 

During an interview on Georgian state television last month, parliament Speaker Nino Burjanadze suggested it was hypocritical of Putin to call on Georgian leaders to embrace talks when Russia continued to employ force in its own renegade region, Chechnya.

"When he [Putin] tells us that we [Georgia] should learn to negotiate ... why is he not holding talks with the Chechens?"

Nino Burjanadze,
Georgian Parliament Speaker

"When he [Putin] tells us that we [Georgia] should learn to negotiate ... why is he not holding talks with the Chechens?" Burjanadze asked.

Moreover, the Georgian media repeatedly contends that neither Abkhazia nor South Ossetia could have established de facto independence in the early 1990s without the political and military support of Russia maintaining its presence in both regions.

Russian position

But Russian analysts play down talk of open war. Although Moscow fails to understand why Georgia wants to be part of Europe rather than in a privileged relationship with its old Soviet partner, a costly war is not part of anyone's plan.

"There are no fools in the Russian leadership who want an international war on their hands right now," said Sergei Mikheyev of the Centre for Political Technologies in Moscow.

"Russia would be happy to mediate a settlement in which Georgia becomes a federalised country and incorporates South Ossetia and Abkhazia as autonomous units, but at this point it seems impossible to make all three sides see that this is the only non-violent way out of the situation," he added. 

But with minor irritations such as Tbilisi's desire to join NATO and its cooperation with the US military (which trains and equips the national army), Russia is in no hurry to respect Georgia's geographical integrity.

South Ossetians

But South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoity, a former wrestling champion, is more bellicose and says the region has the same right to self-determination that Georgia exercised when it withdrew from the Soviet Union in 1991.

Russia resents Georgian troops
training with British and US forces

He says 95% of the population in South Ossetia carry Russian passports and regard integration with Georgia as a pipe dream - even rejecting the widely discussed proposal of offering South Ossetia broad autonomy in a Georgian state.

"This will never happen, and I can claim this with complete confidence. What state do they think they are inviting us into? Georgia is a failed state.

"Let's operate with the facts: In Georgia, three presidents were elected ... none finished his term in accordance with the constitution - they were all removed with coups, or 'rose revolutions' or whatever."

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov applauded those sentiments in August, saying "most residents of South Ossetia are citizens of Russia, and we [the Russian government] should care about them". 

Piece-keepers

But Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili has suggested Russia still yearns for the power it enjoyed in the Caucasus during the Soviet era. He has even joked that Russian "peacekeepers" in his country are "piece-keepers - there to keep the pieces of the old empire".

The president insists his aim is unification of a democratic state within its internationally recognised borders and says Russia's encouragement of separatists in South Ossetia and Abkhazia will have dangerous consequences.

In an interview with Moscow newspaper Novaya Gazeta in August, Saakashvili said: "If they denounce separatist support in Chechnya while advising it in Georgia, they simply do not understand what this war can become. 

Saakashvili: A new war would be
much worse than previous ones

"It would have consequences far more serious than the conflicts of the early 1990s. The region has more weapons, the fighters can organise themselves more efficiently; they are more experienced, more disciplined. It will turn into a long-term conflict."

Worst case scenario

But even if, as is likely, Russia or Georgia do not go to war, some believe Tbilisi is at risk of getting dragged into a potential North Caucasus conflict, such as one pitting Ossetians against Ingush.

Russian newspaper Kommersant Daily quoted former Ingush leader Ruslan Aushev as saying that Ossetians were heavily armed, adding that local militia groups in Beslan contributed to the chaos during the 3 September shootout.

These militia groups reportedly operated beyond the control of Russian authorities, and possibly even hampered operations by Russian special forces, Aushev indicated.
 
Should they seek a safe haven in the south during a conflict with the Ingush, Tbilisi might be forced to get involved.