As was the case in Abkhazia three months ago, the process of signing a new strategic treaty on relations with Russia has triggered controversy in Georgia's other breakaway and largely unrecognized republic, South Ossetia. But whereas in Abkhazia, government and opposition alike were concerned that the provisions of the initial draft threatened to nix the republic's hard-won quasi-independent status, in South Ossetia the legislature and executive are at odds.
Specifically, the Yedinaya Osetiya (One Ossetia) party, which controls 20 of the 34 seats in the parliament elected in June 2014, is advocating a far closer degree of "integration" with Russia than the region's leadership is apparently prepared to condone. Its chairman, parliament speaker Anatoly Bibilov, had called in January 2014 for the holding of a nationwide referendum on whether South Ossetia should enter the Russian Federation as a separate federation subject.
More recently, Bibilov has argued that "the parameters of cooperation enshrined in the treaty on union relations and strategic partnership between Russia and Abkhazia...are not adequate for South Ossetia and do not meet her long-term interests," and that signing a treaty modeled on the Russian-Abkhaz one would be "a pure formality" that would not lead to "a breakthrough" in bilateral relations.
The initial draft of the Russian-South Ossetian treaty, prepared by Moscow, was published on December 20 for public discussion. It was clearly modeled closely on, and bore the same working title, On Union Relations And Integration, as did the original draft of the Russia-Abkhazia treaty, which was subsequently changed to On Union Relations And Strategic Partnership.
Article 1 of the initial Russia-South Ossetia draft duplicated the provision contained in Article 3 of the first draft of the Abkhaz-Russian treaty (subsequently reworded) committing the two sides to "a foreign policy agreed [between them]."
Article 2 of the initial draft proposed the merger of military, law enforcement, and security agencies, the judiciary, and customs and excise; called for the creation of a "single economic space" and energy and transport system; and defined as the ultimate objective of the planned "maximal integration" legalizing the incorporation of the Republic of South Ossetia into the Russian Federation as a separate subject on the basis of a nationwide referendum.
The 30-person presidential political council tasked with assessing and amending that draft duly watered down those key provisions.
Article 1 of the amended version duplicates almost verbatim the final version of article 1 of the Abkhaz- Russian treaty, which commits the two parties to working to achieve "a qualitatively new level of regional security, strategic partnership, and integration."
Article 2 of the amended version comprises Article 1 of the initial draft (on an agreed foreign policy) plus a formal commitment by Russia identical to that written into the Russia-Abkhazia treaty to promote the cause of South Ossetia's international recognition as an independent state.
The various provisions of Article 2 of the initial draft were formalized as separate articles (5–11) in the amended draft. The proposed military integration was replaced, however, by the compromise formulation reached in the final version of the Russia-Abkhazia treaty providing for the creation within one year of a Joint Group of Forces (to be formed of contingents from the South Ossetian and Russian armed forces).
The revised version was finalized on January 12, and sent to Moscow, but not published in the local media. Three days later, the leaders of six opposition parties, including the three minority parties in parliament, addressed a formal request to the presidential political council to fill the resulting "information vacuum" which, they said was giving rise to "tensions" within society.
Meanwhile, Bibilov issued a statement denying that his party was no longer participating in the discussion of the draft. He stressed that the political council's approval of the amended draft on January 12 does not preclude further changes to incorporate One Ossetia's proposals.
On January 17, the State Committee for Information and the Press convened a roundtable to discuss the draft to which Bibilov and the leaders of other political parties were invited. Andrey Kochiyev, editor of the official newspaper Osetiya, was quoted as telling participants that the revised version is not definitive and work on it is continuing.
De facto Foreign Minister David Sanakoyev, participating in his capacity as chairman of the New Ossetia party, responded to that assertion by distributing to the other party leaders and journalists present copies of the January 12 version. Sanakoyev explained that he considered it imperative to do in light of materials posted online construing the removal from the original draft of the commitment that South Ossetia would become part of the Russian Federation as reflecting a pro-Georgian bias on the part of the presidential political council.
Two days later, One Ossetia issued a statement denouncing Sanakoyev and warning that the parliament would not ratify the amended "superficial" version of the treaty which, the party claimed, does not conform to the problems of "deep integration" with Russia and which had not been approved by parliament majority faction. Bibilov for his part warned that the parliament reserves the right to impeach Sanakoyev for having made public the amended version.
New Ossetia duly responded with a statement defending Sanakoyev and describing his distribution of the amended draft as "an absolutely correct and honorable step."
One Ossetia has prepared its own alternative draft treaty, which reportedly restored some of the provisions on integration that had been dropped from the original Russian version. But the extraparliamentary opposition party Fidaen, many of whose members took up arms in August 2008 to repel Georgia's bid to bring South Ossetia back under the central government's control, claims that text violates the South Ossetian constitution insofar as it advocates what Fidaen termed "the complete liquidation" of South Ossetia's defense and security bodies.
Meeting on January 21, the presidential political council reaffirmed its approval of the January 12 amended version of the treaty. It also suggested to de facto President Leonid Tibilov that he personally appoint South Ossetia's representatives to a joint South Ossetian-Russian working group that will hammer out the final version of the treaty.
Meanwhile, Vyacheslav Gobozov, chairman of South Ossetia's State Committee for Information and the Press and of the extraparliamentary opposition Socialist party Fydybasta, has sought to downplay the differences between political forces with regard to the treaty, describing them as "normal" and "tactical rather than strategic." Gobozov appealed to all political parties and the media not to "politicize" the treaty, observing that "none of us has a monopoly either on patriotism or on truth in the last instance."
-- Liz Fuller