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Georgia and Russia on Friday mark the anniversary of Russia’s incursion into Georgia to end a Georgian military offensive against the breakaway region of South Ossetia last year.
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili is set to address the nation following a day of ceremonies, including a nationwide minute of silence to commemorate victims of the war, while in South Ossetia, celebrations are set to include a memorial procession, a moment of silence and a speech by rebel leader Eduard Kokoity.
In Freedom square in downtown Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, large-scale pictures of the war are on display. "They're pictures of sadness, of destruction," says France 24's Cyril Vanier, reporting from Georgia. "Many people in this largely orthodox country make the sign of the cross as they look at them."
But the atmosphere promises to be far from festive. Tensions in the region are on the rise again as Russia and Georgia trade accusations of ‘provocations’ and small-scale attacks.
One year on, an ‘unstable and fragile’ region
Moscow on Wednesday accused the United States of leading a covert rearmament of Georgia in preparation for a possible new military operation against the South Ossetian separatist enclave, which has a mostly Russian-speaking population that seeks closer ties with Moscow.
“Delivery of weapons from the United States is continuing,” Russia's deputy Foreign Minister Grigori Karasin told a Wednesday news conference. “This is worrisome and will force us to take corresponding measures.”
Karasin did not specify what weapons were being supplied or what measures Moscow was prepared to take in response.
Georgia’s National Security Council secretary, Eka Tkeshelashvili, rejected the accusations, calling the statements an attempt at “creating a myth of Georgia’s aggression and aggressive rearmament”.
She said Georgia was rebuilding its army so it could meet the military requirements of NATO, which it hopes to join, and noted that the EU monitoring mission in Georgia observes all military movements.
“Any military base, any police station, any movement of our military or even police forces at any time without prior notification can be monitored and observed and assessed by the mission,” Tkeshelashvili said.
South Ossetia’s separatist president, Eduard Kokoity, on Wednesday accused the EU observers of giving their “tacit approval” to a Georgian military buildup along the region’s border with Georgia, the news agency Interfax reported.
But FRANCE 24’s Cyril Vanier says that, after visiting the Georgia-South Ossetia border on the eve of the anniversary of the 2008 war, the situation appears to be calm.
“There is no reason to believe that either side is preparing a major offensive,” he said.
Vanier added, however, that the border remains in a permanent state of tension, with local residents ever-fearful of new hostilities breaking out.
The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) on Thursday warned that the area remains “unstable”.
"A year after the conflict, the region remains unstable and fragile," said Greek Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis, whose country holds the rotating presidency of the OSCE.
‘A totally different country’
Both South Ossetia and Abkhazia are primarily Russian-speaking enclaves within Georgia whose populations seek closer alignment with Moscow.
On August 7 last year, Georgia began shelling the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, in an attempt to suppress separatist activity in the region. The move prompted Russia to come to the enclave’s defence by launching rocket attacks and sending troops into the region, as well as into parts of Georgia itself.
Separatist fighters in South Ossetia and Abkhazia quickly joined the offensive on the Russian side and within days were successful in driving Georgian troops from South Ossetia’s territory.
More than 7,000 Russian troops continue to monitor the South Ossetian and Abkhazian borders in a bid to counter any further Georgian military activity.
In the weeks following the war, Moscow officially recognised the two regions as independent entities. The rest of the international community, however, sees the enclaves as parts of Georgia.
Reporting from the region, Vanier says South Ossetia “feels like a totally different country” compared to Georgia. Not only do most of the inhabitants speak Russian, they have Russian passports and they use the Russian currency, the ruble.
On a visit to Tbilisi in July, US Vice President Joe Biden reiterated US support for Tbilisi and pledged that Washington would not recognise Georgia’s separatist regions.
“We, the United States, stand by you on your journey to a secure, free and democratic, and once again united, Georgia,” he told a session of parliament.