- The Washington Times - Monday, August 10, 2009

ERGNETI, Georgia | Along this de-facto border where Russia’s war with Georgia broke out last year, homes still lie in rubble, apple orchards have been burned, and residents who once traveled freely across the disputed territory face armed checkpoints.

There is a sense here that the war is not so much over as frozen in place with the potential for new hostilities to break out at any time.

“We are waiting for another war,” said Dzhumber Basharuli, a 50-year-old farmer, whose home was reduced to a smoking shell by artillery during the conflict.

Neither side appears to have much to gain by resuming hostilities that killed at least 390, drove tens of thousands from their homes and left Russia’s relations with the West in tatters.

But with the Aug. 7 anniversary of the outbreak of fighting bringing back memories, Russia and Georgia have been accusing one another of ratcheting up tensions.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said on Russian state television Saturday that a new conflict could not be ruled out because of what he described as recent actions by Georgia.

“I am certain that, in time, just and severe punishment, severe retribution, will come to those people who issued the criminal orders” to attack the breakaway Georgian region last year, Mr. Medvedev said.

Lawrence Scott Sheets of the International Crisis Group said Georgia has little incentive to start another war.

President Mikhail Saakashvili, blamed for provoking a conflict Georgia could not win, was the target of lengthy street protests this spring. Now, though, he “seems to be in a stronger position than he has been since the end of the war,” Mr. Sheets said.

Russia, meanwhile, has already achieved many of its strategic goals in the war — including expanding its military presence in the South Caucasus, where it has historically been the dominant power.

But the peace here seems as fragile as ever.

The Russian Foreign Ministry last week claimed Georgia has provoked skirmishes along the boundaries of its breakaway regions. In response, Russia put its 1 million-strong military on high alert.

Georgian troops and officials, meanwhile, say Moscow-backed separatists have launched sniper, grenade and mortar attacks against undisputed Georgian territory.

Eka Tkeshelashvili, secretary of Georgia’s National Security Council, told reporters that Russia may be seeking to destabilize the Georgian government. “This is a troubling factor,” she said.

Steve Bird, a spokesman for the European Union’s monitoring mission in Georgia, noted that monitors are not allowed on the South Ossetian side of this tense boundary zone. But he said so far observers have found no evidence to back up Russian and separatist claims that Georgian forces have fired into the breakaway region.

The war began not far from this village, about 15 miles from the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali.

Georgia sent troops into South Ossetia in response to what it said was an invasion by Russian forces. Moscow said it had sent tanks and troops into Georgian territory to protect South Ossetian civilians and Russian peacekeepers from what it termed aggression.

Russia routed the Georgian military and drove deep into Georgia. A truce negotiated by the European Union ended five days of fierce fighting.

Moscow quickly exploited its victory by recognizing South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent and permanently deploying thousands of troops there.

Russia’s victory went beyond the battlefield. The conflict exposed the limits of U.S. and EU influence in the region, central to European plans to reduce dependence on Russian-controlled energy supplies.

But the war also damaged Russia’s relations with some of its allies, who refused to join in recognizing the breakaway regions, while failing to dislodge Mr. Saakashvili, the Kremlin’s arch foe.

The perceived threat of a renewed war may have helped strengthen the hand of the Georgian president. Even Mr. Saakasvhili’s critics say Russia shares the blame for the war.

“We’re not giving any kind of excuse to Russia,” said Nino Burdzhanadze, a leader of this spring’s protests. “It was absolutely obvious that Russia was trying to provoke Georgia” into a military confrontation.

The war rattled the West, and the incoming Obama administration sought to reduce tensions by vowing to reset the relationship between Washington and Moscow.

Despite the cordial tone of July’s U.S.-Russia summit in Moscow, Georgia remains a major source of tensions between the two former Cold War adversaries.

Russia considers the U.S. role in Georgia as meddling in its backyard. Many Georgians look to the U.S. to shield them from the wrath of Russia.

“Our one hope is the Americans,” said Nino Gatenashvili, 28, who fled his home in South Ossetia and now lives in a community built for 2,800 displaced families. “We believe them; they are our friends.”

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