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Georgia: Tbilisi's Moves Raise Fears In South Ossetia

Militia in South Ossetia (file photo) The authorities of the unrecognized breakaway Republic of South Ossetia have rejected three times, most recently earlier this month, successive offers by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili to grant the region "the broadest autonomy" within a unitary Georgian state. On 25 and 26 July, Georgian officials accused South Ossetians acting under orders from Russian military intelligence of staging a car bombing --> /featuresarticle/2005/7/9601C33F-925C-48C1-857F-8B7C76B52D31.html in central Georgia in February that killed three people, and they alleged that the same group of saboteurs has missiles capable of shooting down aircraft. Could those allegations herald an imminent military operation to bring South Ossetia back under Tbilisi's control?

Initial overtures

Taking the oath of office in January 2004, Saakashvili pledged to restore Georgia's territorial integrity by bringing its three former autonomies back under the control of the central government. Saakashvili succeeded within months in triggering the ouster of Aslan Abashidze, the authoritarian leader of the Republic of Adjara. Following last August's spectacular failure to repeat that scenario on the first attempt in the breakaway unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia, Saakashvili unveiled in his 21 September 2004 address to the UN General Assembly a plan for resolving peacefully Tbilisi's decade-old conflicts with South Ossetia and Abkhazia by offering the two regions "the broadest conceivable autonomy" within a unitary Georgian state. But the leaders of both unrecognized republics rejected that offer out of hand.

Saakashvili repeated that offer on two subsequent occasions. In a speech to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) in January he again offered "the broadest autonomy" to both South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Saakashvili stressed that under the model he proposed, South Ossetia would enjoy a greater degree of autonomy within Georgia than does its neighbor, the Republic of North Ossetia-Alania, within the Russian Federation.

Saakashvili explained in his address to PACE that Tbilisi's proposal comprises "a constitutional guarantee of autonomy, that includes the right to freely and directly elected local self governance, including an executive branch and a parliament for South Ossetia. South Ossetia's parliament will...control...issues such as culture, education, social policy, economic policy, public order, the organization of local self governance, and environmental protection."

South Ossetia would also, Saakashvili said, have representatives in the national government, parliament, and judiciary. He further said Tbilisi is ready to discuss with the South Ossetian leadership "innovative ideas," including free economic zones, and to permit that leadership to tailor its economic policies to local needs. Saakashvili proposed a three-year transitional period during which a mixed Georgian-Ossetian police force would be set up under the guidance of international organizations, and the South Ossetian army would be absorbed into the Georgian armed forces. He appealed to the OSCE, the Council of Europe, the EU, the United States, and Russia to support and facilitate the peace process.

Ensuing difficulties

But South Ossetia's President Eduard Kokoity rejected Saakashvili's offer, arguing that South Ossetia is an independent state, if not recognized as such. When Saakashvili convened an international conference in Batumi earlier this month to discuss his South Ossetian peace initiative, both South Ossetia and Russia, which commands the peacekeeping force deployed in the South Ossetian conflict zone since 1992, failed to send representatives. Kokoity's personal representative, Vazha Khachapuridze, was quoted by the Georgian newspaper "Rezonansi" on 15 July as saying Kokoity has his own proposals for ending the conflict. Those proposals have not yet been made public, however, Kokoity might have discussed them with Abkhaz President Sergei Bagapsh during their talks in Gagra on 26 July.

Addressing the Batumi conference on 10 July, Saakashvili said he is prepared to have South Ossetia's autonomous status formally written into the Georgian Constitution. He also offered South Ossetia some airtime on Georgian public television and radio, and to pay pensions arrears that have accrued since the conflict was effectively frozen in 1992, reported. International participants at the Batumi conference lauded Saakashvili's offer, as did OSCE Chairman in Office Dmitrij Rupel, according to Caucasus Press on 14 July. But that international endorsement may have been prompted at least in part by relief that Saakashvili has stopped trying to portray the standoff over South Ossetia as one between Georgia and Moscow, and thus play the international community off against Moscow in his favor (for a related article, click here).

Moreover, the very term "autonomy" is so totally discredited across the former USSR that any conflict settlement based on it is bound to be rejected, as Akhmed Zakaev, European envoy of slain Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov, pointed out in an analysis posted on in August 2004. Zakaev noted that within the USSR, the so-called autonomous republics and oblasts -- including the Chechen-Ingush ASSR (and the South Ossetian Autonomous Oblast) -- provided minimal concessions to the specific needs of the titular nationality or ignored those needs totally, a policy that instilled in the Chechens and Georgia's Ossetians the impression that they were "second-class citizens."

Nor are residents of South Ossetia likely to have been swayed by Saakashvili's pledge to formalize the region's autonomy within the Georgian Constitution. Many of them will remember how the Georgian parliament in late 1990 abolished with one stroke of the pen South Ossetia's status as an autonomous oblast within Georgia, in direct violation of a pre-election pledge by then Georgian leader Zviad Gamsakhurdia.

In addition, South Ossetian leaders have on several recent occasions expressed concern at the measures taken by Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili since his appointment to that post late last year to strengthen the Georgian armed forces. Okruashvili was born in Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian capital, and as interior minister played a prominent role in the abortive assault on South Ossetia last August. He has consistently taken a more hawkish stance on South Ossetia than has Saakashvili.

Prelude to violence?

Tensions in the South Ossetian conflict zone have worsened in the past two months as the result of the shooting by Georgian police of several alleged Ossetian criminals and the abduction in retaliation of four Georgians in early June. Those events have fuelled the perception, both among outside observers and within the Georgian Army, that Tbilisi will launch a new military offensive once the South Ossetian leadership has rejected all possibilities for resolving the conflict peacefully. Georgian Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili's allegations on 25 July that Ossetians perpetrated a series of terrorist atrocities in Georgia, and on 26 July that they have weaponry capable of downing civilian aircraft, could be intended to provide the rationale for such an operation.