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Why Did ‘Izvestia’ Seek To Compromise South Ossetian Leader?

Leonid Tibilov, the de facto president of South Ossetia
Leonid Tibilov, the de facto president of South Ossetia
On August 14, the Russian daily “Izvestia” quoted Leonid Tibilov, de facto president of Georgia’s breakaway republic of South Ossetia, as saying that several formerly Georgian-populated villages to the north of Tskhinvali will be demolished to allow for the construction of an industrial and agricultural zone.

That report triggered a storm of protest from Georgian government officials. But there is not a single news report or video clip anywhere on the Internet, including the official South Ossetian website, that systematically reports Tibilov’s activities, that predates the”Izvestia” article and could thus have served as its source.

The “Izvestia” article was unattributed. It did not say when or where Tibilov announced the purported planned demolition.
Tibilov’s representative for postconflict reconstruction, Murat Djioyev, formally denied on August 16 that Tibilov had issued any decree on the demolition of burned-out or destroyed homes anywhere in South Ossetia. He said the region’s leadership is seeking to restore war-damaged areas “taking into account internationally accepted norms in such situations.”

Djioyev also took issue with the use by “Izvestia” of the term “Georgian enclave.” He said there were no villages where the population was 100 percent Georgian but that the Ossetian residents of some villages to the north and west of Tskhinvali, who constituted between 30-40 percent of the local population, had been driven out during the fighting in 1989-92.

Djioyev noted that the “Izvestia” article had occasioned a storm of “anti-South Ossetia hysteria” in Georgia. The Georgian Foreign Ministry characterized the statements “Izvestia” imputed to Tibilov as the latest in a string of statements admitting “intent to ethnically cleanse the region.”

OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities Kurt Vollebaek appealed to the South Ossetian leadership “to clarify a statement indicating that it plans to demolish ethnic-Georgian villages.” Vollebaek said “the houses still belong to the original inhabitants of these villages and they should not be demolished. Under international law, the displaced people have a right to return to their homes and their property should be respected.” Demolition, he warned, would constitute a crime under international law.

Whether or not in response to Vollebaek’s statement, an interview with Tibilov was published two days later by the Russian daily “Komsomolskaya pravda” in which Tibilov did discuss the issue of the devastated villages.

Like Djioyev, he said the population had originally been mixed and the Ossetians had been driven out during the wave of anti-Ossetian nationalism unleashed by Zviad Gamsakhurdia following his election in late 1990 as chairman of the Georgian SSR Supreme Soviet. The Georgians, Tibilov claimed, left in early August 2008, having been informed in advance of the impending Georgian attack.

Tibilov said that regardless of the ethnicity of the former owners, the “ruins” will be demolished, as is the accepted practice worldwide, and new houses equipped with all conveniences will be built to replace them.

Why “Izvestia” should have published an unsubstantiated article reflecting badly on the South Ossetian leadership is not clear. Djioyev attributed it to incompetence and ignorance of the situation on the ground. But it is also conceivable that it may have been intended to precipitate an intemperate response by Tbilisi in the run-up to the Georgian parliamentary election on October 1.

About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.


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