Accessibility links

Georgia: South Ossetia Throws Down Gauntlet With Referendum On Independence

  • Robert Parsons --> A Russian peacekeeper guards a checkpoint outside the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali (AFP) PRAGUE, September 14, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- For a frozen conflict South Ossetia is generating a great deal of hot air.

And a bitter war of words has increasingly been accompanied by violence -- last week alone, Ossetian units shot at and hit the helicopter carrying Georgia's defense minister, and four men died in an exchange of fire.

To add to the tension, South Ossetia is to hold a referendum on independence from Georgia in November and the Georgians want to change the format of the negotiations on the future of the region to exclude Russia.

The chairman of the Russian Duma, Boris Gryzlov, set the tone by claiming that South Ossetia's decision to hold a referendum on independence was its right. Georgia, he said, had left the Ossetians with no alternative.

He went further. Russia, he announced, would send parliamentarians to observe the vote, which will take place on November 12.

This has not gone down well in Tbilisi, where it is pointedly being asked whether this is what Russia means by support for Georgia's territorial integrity.

International Concerns

More importantly perhaps, it has not gone down well in Washington or Brussels either. There are distinct signs that patience is wearing thin with Moscow's role in the region.

Last month, U.S. Senator Richard Lugar twice stated that Washington no longer supports the presence of Russian peacekeeping forces in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, another breakaway region in Georgia. Diplomacy, he said, may lead to "more neutral" parties taking on the peacekeeping role.

And in Europe too irritation is growing. The secretary-general of the Council of Europe, Terry Davis, on September 13 called the South Ossetian referendum a waste of time and resources. If the authorities in South Ossetia were genuinely committed to the interests of the people they claimed to represent, they should engage in meaningful negotiations with the Georgian government.

That view was echoed by Marie Anne Isler Beguin, a French member of the European Parliament and leader of an EU parliamentary delegation to Georgia this week. She told RFE/RL's Georgian Service that she had asked the South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoity about the referendum.

"That was a question I asked -- what does this mean, a referendum like this in a region where 80 percent of the population holds Russian passports? Is it a South Ossetian population or a Russian population that is demanding to decide its future?" Beguin said.

Rising Tensions On The Ground

But while the politicians argue, on the ground in South Ossetia, the potential for tragedy is growing. "Frozen conflict" is in many ways a misnomer for a confrontation that regularly claims lives and where rival militias and police forces are engaged in a constant trial of strength.

It does not help that there is no easy border but rather an ethnic patchwork of Georgian and Ossetian villages.

Nerves are frayed and there is an overwhelming sense of frustration that years of negotiation have changed nothing.

South Ossetia's leader, Eduard Kokoity

Earlier this year, the Georgians proposed a framework for peace that won widespread international approval. But the plan, which offered South Ossetia considerable autonomy within the Georgian state, appears to be seen as a non-starter by most Ossetians, among them freelance journalist Irina Kelekhsayeva.

"The postwar generation doesn't see itself as being part of Georgia. We haven't spoken Georgian now for a long time and we have got used to the idea that we can be an independent state and that, if it comes to it, we can join Russia," Kelekhsayeva said. "And, then, what we see in the attitude of the Georgian government toward us also convinces us that we can't think of living in this state as an autonomous body or as part of a federation."

Accusations Of Russian Involvement

But what might seem obvious to Ossetians like Kelekhsayeva is dismissed out of hand by the Georgians. Like everything else that happens in South Ossetia, they say, the referendum reveals Russia's hand.

Giorgi Khaindrava, who until July the Georgian conflict resolution minister and the man responsible for negotiating with the Ossetian leadership, said it is clear that it is a confrontation between Georgia and Russia.

"The Tskhinvali [capital of South Osseti] regime represents nothing. It is merely the executor of Moscow's orders. In my view, the aim is to exacerbate the situation to the maximum extent and, of course, it is in Moscow's interest to provoke local conflicts," Khaindrava said.

These are two views so diametrically opposed it is difficult to see any possibility of finding common ground.

Yet Khaindrava does not agree. And he accepts that the Georgian side must share its part of the responsibility for its failure to connect with ordinary Ossetians.

"When international forces are able to balance out Russia's negative role, the Georgian side must then give the people of Tskhinvali region specific proposals, which will clearly lay out the whos, whys, and wherefores of any settlement," Khaindrava said. "As things stand, it is my deep conviction that the Georgian government has no carefully thought-out approach to this issue because two winds are blowing: one peaceful and the other rather aggressive."

A glimmer of hope perhaps amid the descending gloom but little more than that. Khaindrava is the former minister for conflict resolution and there are signs his successor may be adopting a tougher line. The Georgians say they want to change the negotiating format to exclude the Russians, whom they regard as too much a party to the dispute to play a neutral role.

There are many in the international community who appear to sympathize, but none that are ready to assume Russia's peacekeeping role. It is confrontation that is in the air in South Ossetia not reconciliation and peace.

Universal Principles?

President Putin at a Kremlin meeting in April (epa)

PUTIN SPEAKS OUT: During a January press conference, Russian President Vladimir Putin said there is a need for "universal principles" to settle "frozen" conflicts in the CIS. His comments came against the background of impending talks on the future status of Kosovo, which many predict will grant it a form of "conditional independence" from Serbia and Montenegro. As an ally of Serbia, Moscow has consistently opposed the idea of Kosovar independence. Putin's remarks suggest he may be shifting his position, but only if the principles applied to Kosovo are also applied to frozen conflicts in the former Soviet Union. If Kosovo can be granted full independence, he asked, why should we deny the same to Abkhazia and South Ossetia? (more)


Putin Calls For 'Universal Principles' To Settle Frozen Conflicts

Russia Key To OSCE's Attempts To Resolve Frozen Conflicts

Georgia Pushes For EU Backing In Standoffs With Russia


Click here to view archives of RFE/RL's coverage of the conflicts in Abkhazia, Chechnya, Kosovo, Nagorno-Karabakh, Ossetia, and Transdniester.