Commentary: The View From Tskhinvali

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 1 Issue: 77

Led by the Jamestown Foundation, a group of international analysts and journalists recently held in-depth talks in Tskhinvali with South Ossetian representatives Boris Chochiev and Murad Jioev. The discussion was held at the height of tensions fueled by overt and covert Russian activities in South Ossetia in August.

Chochiev is co-chairman of the quadripartite Joint Control Commission (comprised of Russia, Georgia, North Ossetia, and South Ossetia) that supervises the ceasefire and holds occasional talks on conflict settlement. Chochiev is believed to be no less influential than “president” Eduard Kokoev in the informal South Ossetian hierarchy, where Russia-based organized crime and intelligence networks intersect. Jioev is the unrecognized republic’s self-styled “minister of foreign affairs.” Chochiev, Jioev, and indeed the entire South Ossetian leadership are citizens of the Russian Federation, to which they openly declare loyalty.

The tone of their remarks was not so much one of defiance, but rather of quiet and complete self-confidence, with occasional notes of calculated aggressiveness. This stance emerges from their certainty that Russian will continue to support them, and that the West will continue to observe the conflict passively.

Chochiev and Jioev dismissed any notion of a political status for South Ossetia within Georgia. They equally rejected independent statehood for South Ossetia. Their unambiguously stated goal is incorporation into the Russian Federation via North Ossetia. Significantly, these South Ossetian leaders did not formulate that goal in terms of an Ossetian ethnic-nationalist agenda, and they displayed scant interest in an Ossetian national revival. Instead, they framed their argument in terms of historic Ossetian loyalty to the Russian Empire and its successors, the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation. Left unsaid were the military-intelligence and organized-crime links that run between Russia and South Ossetia, and that form the basis of these leaders’ power and income.

Fully aware of international political considerations that prevent Russia from incorporating South Ossetia outright, Chochiev and Jioev evidenced satisfaction with the present situation, whereby Russia is gradually absorbing South Ossetia de facto. They declared themselves prepared to wait as long as may be necessary to formalize that assimilation.

During the months and weeks preceding Jamestown’s visit, the Georgian leadership had publicly and privately made a series of political overtures to Tskhinvali leaders. Tbilisi offered autonomous-republic status for South Ossetia within Georgia (a status superior to that of autonomous region, enjoyed by South Ossetia prior to 1991), the post of vice-president of Georgia for elected presidents of a South Ossetian autonomous republic, and talks on the latter’s representation in central legislative and executive bodies. Furthermore, the Georgian leadership considers it a matter of state interest to encourage the preservation of Ossetian ethnic identity and language in Georgia (North Ossetians across the border are largely Russified). These Georgian offers remain on the table.

South Ossetia’s leadership has thus far ignored these offers, and Jamestown’s interlocutors dismissed them outright as irrelevant to the goal of direct affiliation with Russia. To rationalize that goal they theatrically professed a distrust of Georgian intentions and offers. When asked to comment on political overtures from Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, they responded by criticizing the late ex-president Zviad Gamsakhurdia’s actions in 1990, which Saakashvili himself has disavowed.

Strikingly, the West was never mentioned as a factor in the South Ossetian political calculations. After more than a decade of Western passivity, South Ossetian leaders appear smugly convinced that all significant issues will basically be decided in and by Moscow, or in the forum of Russia-North Ossetia-South Ossetia-Georgia-OSCE, where Russia holds overwhelming sway against Georgia (the OSCE is a neutral figurehead). As became evident during Jamestown’s discussions in Tskhinvali, the West’s political and economic non-involvement boosts the South Ossetian leaders’ self-confidence and intransigence. Whereas Abkhaz leaders (with whom the Jamestown-led group also held talks in Sukhumi) evidenced a dislike of the West, the Tskhinvali interlocutors evidenced a complete ignorance of the West as a possible player or set of players in South Ossetia.

Russia controls most of South Ossetia’s territory physically and militarily, arms and trains Ossetian forces in South Ossetia (North Ossetian troops from Russia serve with South Ossetian units alongside the Russian military). Russia also controls the Ossetian sector of the Georgia-Russian border on both sides, confers Russian citizenship on South Ossetians, claims a right of intrusive protection on that basis, and allows or (mostly) disallows access by Georgian officials even in the small security zone around Tskhinvali, while ruling out such access in most of South Ossetia’s territory. Neither international organizations nor Georgia’s Western partners have reacted to the collapse of international law and order in Georgia’s separatist regions.

The discussions in Tskhinvali suggest that “ethnic conflict” is a misnomer for the situation in South Ossetia. Local leaders (elected, albeit undemocratically) displayed almost no interest in classical ethnic-national goals (language, education, statehood), opting instead for annexation to Russia, where Ossetian national identity has even less chance for preservation than it does in Georgia. Recent developments confirm that this conflict is not one between Georgians and Ossetians, but one conducted by Russia against Georgia, originating in Moscow’s strategy to obtain (as in Abkhazia) a bridgehead to the south of the Caucasus mountain range.