Saakashvili has pledged to restore Georgia's territorial integrity by the end of his five-year mandate.
The Georgian leader insists he intends to achieve this goal through peaceful means. Yet his decision last summer to send troops to areas bordering South Ossetia and the region itself -- officially to curb separatist contraband activities -- triggered a series of armed clashes that claimed the lives of 16 Georgian soldiers and an unspecified number of Ossetians. The incidents were the most serious recorded in the area since the 1992 truce agreement.
Saakashvili did not mention those clashes during his address to PACE. Instead, he focused on what he called his "South Ossetian peace initiative," which he maintains fully meets the aspirations of the separatist province -- known in Georgia as the Tskhinvali region -- and its 35,000 inhabitants.
"First and foremost, our vision for a peaceful and united Georgia is based on the respect for the desire for autonomy of the Tskhinvali region-South Ossetia. If during the Soviet period South Ossetia enjoyed all [possible] forms of Soviet autonomy, today, under this plan, it [would] enjoy a much [fairer] form [of autonomy] -- even broader than the autonomy [enjoyed by] North Ossetia in Russia," Saakashvili said.
Saakashvili then unveiled the main features of his plan, including granting South Ossetia quotas in Georgia's national parliament, the judiciary, and central government.
"Specifically, our plan envisions constitutional guarantees for [the region's] autonomous status, which include the right to freely and directly elect [its] local self-governments, including an executive branch and a parliament. The region's parliament will be a parliament with substance. That means [that it will have] control over issues such as culture and education, social policy, economic policy, public order, the organization of local self-governments, and environmental protection. At the same time, the people of the Tskhinvali region-South Ossetia must have a voice in the national structures of government, and this plan establishes the constitutional guarantee to do that," Saakashvili said.
Saakashvili did not elaborate on the responsibilities his plan would grant Georgia's central authorities. But addressing Georgian reporters on 24 January in Tbilisi, he clearly delineated the limits of South Ossetia's sovereignty.
"We want to have a strong Georgian state, and we want the [South Ossetian] conflict to be solved peacefully. The price we must pay for that is that we should give that territory certain political rights. But everything that concerns border control, defense, public order, human rights will be the prerogative of Georgia's central government," Saakashvili said.
Today, Saakashvili suggested that, for a three-year transition period, public order would be enforced by a joint police force placed under international supervision, while at the same time South Ossetia's armed forces would be progressively absorbed into the Georgian Army. He also said civilians who suffered during the war would be compensated, "so that the past can be finally put to rest in a fair and dignified manner."
The separatist leadership immediately rejected Saakashvili's offer, however. South Ossetian President Eduard Kokoity, who is on a visit to Moscow, told reporters there that his region intends to remain independent from Georgia.
Yesterday, a South Ossetian Foreign Ministry statement had already described the Georgian president's upcoming peace initiative as "totally unacceptable" and as "yet another propagandistic move."
South Ossetia rejected a previous Georgian peace proposal extended shortly before Saakashvili ordered troops into the region last summer.
The Georgian president today eluded a question from Russian parliamentarian Leonid Slutskii on what his next step might be should Tskhinvali reject his latest offer. Saakashvili also said his plan does not apply to Abkhazia, Georgia's other separatist republic.
"Why am I proposing this [plan] to South Ossetia and not Abkhazia? Because in the case of Abkhazia at this moment -- unfortunately -- it is no use. Why is it no use? First of all, because Abkhazia walked out of negotiations. The [other] problem is that [the Abkhaz] expelled every single ethnic Georgian [during the war]," Saakashvili said.
Ethnic Georgians were the predominant ethnic group in Abkhazia before the war -- 250,000 according to the 1989 Soviet census. Nearly all of them left the region following the defeat of the Georgian Army in 1993.
An estimated 30,000 to 60,000 Georgians were able to return to Abkhazia's southern Gali region since military operations ended. But many more continue to live in appalling conditions in Tbilisi and other Georgian cities, and Saakashvili's government demands they be authorized to return to their home region as a prerequisite to any peace talks.
Addressing reporters in Moscow, Abkhaz President-elect Sergei Bagapsh yesterday said more former Gali residents could be allowed to return home. But he denied such a possibility for displaced Georgians originating from other parts of Abkhazia."[For many years] refugees could not return to Gali, and we were able to solve this issue through talks," he said. "Some refugees have already returned to Gali, and I think others will follow. As for the rest of these refugees, let me tell you frankly that there will be no repatriation today."
Also yesterday, Bagapsh reiterated that Abkhazia will never recognize Tbilisi's jurisdiction and will reject any Georgian reconciliation plan that denies its existence as an independent state.
Saakashvili said on 24 January that he is opposed to any scheme that seeks to make Georgia a federation of autonomous regions or that would establish confederative links with Abkhazia.
Georgian parliamentary speaker Nino Burdjanadze yesterday was even more explicit. Addressing reporters in Tbilisi, she said, "Let no one have any illusions about Georgia recognizing Abkhazia's independence." "So long as there remains a single Georgian alive on Earth, and so long as all Abkhaz-born Georgians are not allowed to return home, that will never happen," she added.