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Georgia: New Leadership, Russian Dispute, Populism Hinder South Ossetian Peace Process

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

The election of a Russian citizen as the head of South Ossetia last year has progressively brought peace negotiations between Georgia and its breakaway province to a standstill. Now that Russia is exerting pressure on the South Caucasus state, relations between Tbilisi and the separatist leadership are taking an alarming twist, with Tskhinvali threatening to mobilize its armed forces and some Georgian politicians calling for a forcible solution to the South Ossetian conflict.

Tbilisi, 22 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- While Russia maintains pressure on Georgia over its alleged support of Chechen separatist fighters, tension is rising between Tbilisi and the leadership of the self-proclaimed republic of South Ossetia.

Addressing the Permanent Council of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Vienna, U.S. Ambassador Stephan Minikes earlier on 10 October expressed Washington's concerns over the tense situation in South Ossetia and urged Georgia and its breakaway republic to continue searching for a peaceful settlement of their 12-year-old dispute.

As evidence of the mounting tension, the U.S. envoy cited South Ossetia's threats to decree a general mobilization following allegations that Georgia might extend the ongoing security sweep in the Pankisi Gorge into South Ossetia. Such bellicose statements, Minikes noted, "are both symptoms of and contributing factors to the overall instability."

Media reports indicate South Ossetia has already started mobilizing army reservists, although there has not yet been any official announcement.

In his address to the OSCE Permanent Council, the U.S. representative made no mention of Russia. Yet, many in Georgia believe the key to the South Ossetian conflict lies in Moscow's hands.

Alexander Rondeli runs the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies, an independent Tbilisi-based think tank. He tells RFE/RL it is impossible to ignore Georgian-Russian relations when examining Tbilisi's dispute with the separatist republic: "When one speaks of relations between Georgia and South Ossetia, one should rather speak of relations between Georgia and Russia because South Ossetia does not exist as a state. South Ossetia is a small enclave, which is entirely under Russian control, whether military, political, or economic. So relations between Georgia and that enclave are in fact relations between Georgia and Russia."

South Ossetia officially seceded from Tbilisi in 1990, months after the local legislature voted to raise the status of what was then a mere Georgian administrative district to that of an autonomous republic.

The move prompted then-Georgian nationalist leader Zviad Gamsakhurdia to order a military operation to reassert control over the region. Anxious to stem Georgia's drive toward independence, Moscow supported the South Ossetian separatist leadership from the outset.

In June 1992, shortly after Eduard Shevardnadze ousted Gamsakhurdia and effectively became Georgia's new head of state, a Moscow-sponsored cease-fire agreement brought the bloody conflict to an end and provided for the deployment of Russian, Georgian, and South Ossetian peacekeepers in the region. Despite assistance offered by the OSCE to bring the sides to a peace treaty, Georgia and South Ossetia remain formally at war.

In December last year, Eduard Kokoev, a 38-year-old ethnic South Ossetian holding a Russian passport, succeeded Lyudvig Chibirov as president of the breakaway republic, which he pledged would soon become an "associate member" of the Russian Federation.

Although the newly elected leader has since changed his name to Kokoity to emphasize his South Ossetian extraction, Georgian officials generally see him as an instrument of what they describe as the Kremlin's efforts to tighten its grip on the separatist region and undermine Shevardnadze's regime.

As evidence of their claims, these officials notably cite Moscow's recent decision to grant Russian citizenship to an increasing number of residents of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Georgia's other breakaway republic. Estimates put at nearly 70 percent the number of residents in both regions who have been offered Russian passports.

Irakli Machavariani is Shevardnadze's representative in the South Ossetian peace talks. In an interview with RFE/RL, he said that, paradoxically, the frequency of bilateral meetings has increased since Kokoity acceded to power.

The Joint-Control Commission -- a quadripartite body made up of Georgian, Russian, South Ossetian, and North Ossetian representatives to direct and control the joint peacekeeping forces -- has met five times since February. Machavariani said experts charged with negotiating a political solution to the conflict would meet later this week (25 October) in Portugal, which currently chairs the OSCE rotating presidency.

Shevardnadze's envoy, however, acknowledged that the peace process is at a standstill, assessing the situation in South Ossetia a year ago as "the most advanced conflict-resolution process" and describing recent talks as "a repetition of something that happened before." Asked about the reasons for this lack of progress, Machavariani diplomatically blamed the lack of experience of his South Ossetian interlocutors rather than a hardening of Tskhinvali's stance.

"I cannot say that we've reached any progress because the new administration of the separatist region is, from the personal side, very different from the previous one. Very few people from the previous administration have kept their positions, and this [new] team practically consists of people who are less experienced, who sometimes do not know what happened before, misunderstand things, and, therefore, interpret them differently from their predecessors. That, of course, creates difficulties."

Yet, later in the course of the interview, Machavariani unequivocally elaborated on Russia's greater ascendancy over the new South Ossetian leadership: "[Former South Ossetian leader] Chibirov had understood that, yes, he had to play with Moscow but also that he had to defend his own interests which were not always those of [Russia]. [Kokoity] still does not understand that. It seems to me that he very consistently fulfills [somebody else's] instructions. One day, I think, he will understand that this is wrong. Very soon, I believe, he will [realize] in which difficult game he has put himself, and he will understand that he has to solve a lot of things by himself."

Georgian analysts generally note that Chibirov had managed to find a working arrangement with Shevardnadze and that under his rule Georgia and South Ossetia had managed to restore some broken economic ties. But they say this generally positive flow is now being reversed.

Political analyst Rondeli said: "I believe the leaders who have recently come to power in South Ossetia entirely depend on Russia, to an event greater extent than their predecessors. They are conducting an uncompromising policy and are trying to put as great a distance as possible between [themselves] and Georgia. Given the [geographic] situation of South Ossetia, this is not a natural development. In any case, this region will have to come to terms with us and the sooner its leaders will understand it, the better it will be."

Meanwhile, the recent Pankisi security crackdown -- which Georgian experts say was ordered to preempt a Russian armed incursion into the mountainous area close to the Chechen border -- has further heightened tension between Tbilisi and Tskhinvali. Last month, the South Ossetian leadership accused Tbilisi of driving Pankisi-based Chechen fighters toward Tskhinvali and signed an agreement of mutual military support with Abkhazia in case of Georgian aggression.

Tensions heightened further after Georgia earlier this month announced plans to launch a police operation in Shida Kartli, or Inner Kartli, the administrative region that formally includes South Ossetia.

Georgian officials say landlocked and mountainous South Ossetia is a major route for goods smuggled from and to Russia's autonomous republic of North Ossetia. They also claim the separatist republic's official structures have been infiltrated by criminal gangs controlling illicit regional trade and say the number of offenses committed in Shida Kartli has risen sharply over the past year.

Chief negotiator Machavariani told RFE/RL that Georgia's plans envisage only dispatching reinforcements, erecting new checkpoints, and allocating additional funding and equipment to local police in a bid to prevent cross-border cooperation between Ossetian and Georgian criminals.

He said the security increase has long been necessary because of the intricate ethnic divide in the demarcation zone that has left a number of Georgian villages on South Ossetian territory and, conversely, some Ossetian settlements in Georgian soil. Machavariani also pointed out that regional police need additional means because they have, in fact, to fulfill the functions of a border guard force.

"No special operations are being planned there. Police checkpoints have been set up on the most dangerous places where there have been numerous cases of killing, robbery, and kidnapping, and in villages [that] are located on the de facto border and [that] have direct access to South Ossetia. There is not a single document [regarding] the conflict zone regime that imposes limitations on police forces of both sides. There are [limitations] for armed forces. Only forces belonging to the joint peacekeeping operation are allowed in the area. But there are no limitations on police forces."

Shida Kartli police officials yesterday said the operation had already resulted in the arrest of four wanted criminals.

Echoing earlier assurances given by Interior Minister Koba Narchemashvili, Machavariani denied Tbilisi had any intention to move unilaterally like it did three years ago when Georgian police raided a South Ossetian village without notifying Tskhinvali.

But, at the same time, Shevardnadze's envoy deplored "populist statements" made by some Georgian politicians who -- after Russia last month threatened to launch military strikes on alleged Pankisi-based Chechen training camps -- are calling for a forcible solution to the South Ossetian conflict. Resorting to arguments reminiscent of Russia's claims over Pankisi, some in Tbilisi say the separatist region is harboring Chechen fighters and want a large-scale security sweep in the area.

Machavariani said: "Populism is very bad for conflict resolution. Conflict resolution needs a quiet environment without harsh statements. But in the present situation, this is almost impossible to achieve."

Although few in Tbilisi believe the separatist conflict will flare up again, experts nonetheless say relations with Tskhinvali will not improve as long as the dispute between Georgia and Russia continues.

Following recent talks between Shevardnadze and Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Moldovan capital, Chisinau, both countries last week (17 October) agreed to cooperate in monitoring their common border. But most Georgians believe the respite will be short-lived and doubt Moscow will relax its pressure on Tbilisi.