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South Ossetia violence signals urgent need for attention

Tuesday, August 5
This weekend South Ossetia saw its worst violence in years. It would be a mistake to write off the deadly attacks as another summer flare-up.

The conflict has been building for months. There were assassinations and targeted attacks in early summer, and a shootout last week over strategic heights near Tskhinvali. This suggests that someone is trying to improve their footing.

That does not mean a plan for war is in motion. Strong physical positions in the conflict zone, which is a tenuous patchwork of state- and secessionist-controlled territory, lend strength in negotiations. When political or logistic positions shift—Moscow formalizing links with the separatist regime; a gas pipeline from Russia to Tskhinvali coming online—there is movement on other positions.

While this may be a scramble to stay in place, there is more potential for rash action in South Ossetia than in Abkhazia, where the costs of violence are higher and potential gains lower.

The situation was quiet as of last night, but action is needed to cement the calm. Tbilisi says it is ready for direct talks, but not through the Russian-dominated Joint Control Commission. Tskhinvali says it will only talk through the Joint Control Commission.

That leaves intermediaries and clandestine meetings as the only options for very necessary Georgian-South Ossetian talks. They should be vigorously pursued.

South Ossetia’s envoy to Russia told reporters that peace is “hanging by a thread.” That may be as much propaganda as assessment, but undoubtedly one poor step can plunge the region into far greater violence. All parties with an interest in peace must make every effort to step back from this precipice.