Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 69

Last November’s election of a Tbilisi-backed administration under Dmitry Sanakoyev in parts of South Ossetia has resulted in a dual-power situation, challenging the Moscow-installed Tskhinvali authorities to a contest for the local population’s allegiance. Tbilisi is now equipping the Sanakoyev administration — based in Kurta, just a few kilometers outside Tskhinvali — with the political and economic tools to conduct and potentially win such a contest.

On April 5 the Georgian parliament approved a law on “Creating Conditions for Peaceful Resolution of the Conflict in the Former South Ossetian Autonomous Region.” The law passed by a vote of 165 to 2 in the first hearing, presaging a quick final approval by pro-government and opposition parties in consensus. The law authorizes the creation of a “temporary administrative unit” in South Ossetia, thus setting a framework for specifying the unit’s functions and competencies by follow-up legislation.

Under this law, the temporary administrative unit shall represent the interests of South Ossetia’s population, interacting both with Georgia’s central government and with international organizations. Its main purposes are “promoting a peaceful resolution of the conflict, restoring constitutional order in the area, protecting the rights and interests of people and ethnic groups living there, and create appropriate conditions for democratic elections.”

The Georgian president is to appoint the unit’s interim leaders — that is, in practice, to confirm the Sanakoyev administration. That administration shall: participate in negotiations toward defining South Ossetia’s political status within the Georgian state; advance its own proposals for developing that status in consultation with the local population; channel reconstruction and humanitarian assistance to South Ossetia and its population; carry out the process of governance and tasks of administration within its competencies, to be listed in a special law; and carry out economic development projects.

In the parliamentary debate on the law, Speaker Nino Burjanadze, as well as deputies from President Mikheil Saakashvili’s inner circle, noted that the central Georgian government would continue discussing with the Tskhinvali authorities as well as the Kurta authorities, secessionist as well as non-secessionist groups, regarding South Ossetia’s ultimate political status. The influential parliamentarian Giga Bokeria described the purpose of this and upcoming legislation as “forming a European-type autonomy to be offered to the local population.”

In his comments on the vote and its implications, Saakashvili called for taking all interests into account in negotiating toward a status that would ensure autonomy rights for Ossetians in the area as well as protect Georgia’s sovereignty “against intrusion by foreign forces that seek to dismember Georgia and regard Georgia as some bargaining chip in a global game.”

Sanakoyev, his second-in-command, Uruzmag Karkusov, and other Kurta-based leaders had emerged during the early 1990s as Ossetian nationalists, fought against Georgian forces, and held “ministerial” and “prime-ministerial” posts with the secessionist authorities. This group was displaced after 2001 by leaders sent in, for the most part, from Russia’s interior, many of them with military and intelligence backgrounds, and none of them with loyalties to the local population. By contrast, representatives of influential local families such as the Sanakoyevs, Karkusovs, Parastayevs, and others with extensive contacts in local society now seem to regard Georgia as a success story in the making and best placed to guarantee the preservation of Ossetian identity and the region’s development.

Thus, the political contest between the Kurta and Tskhinvali groups is a conflict between local interests and an extreme case of Russian-imposed carpetbaggery — matching that in Transnistria, where Moldova is, however, too weak to follow the example of Georgia in South Ossetia. The duality of power in South Ossetia could not have emerged without Tbilisi’s assistance; but that assistance itself has responded to local processes and expectations.

Anticipating the Georgian parliament’s passage of the law, Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs had warned in a March 29 statement that any support for the Sanakoyev parallel authorities “would amount to a crime.” The statement and a follow-up one by the Deputy Minister and State Secretary Grigory Karasin warned in dire terms about Georgia’s alleged intentions to use force — a line clearly designed to alarm Georgia’s Western partners into urging Georgia to return to the old ways. “The appropriate formats exist and there is no need to invent other ones,” Russia’s MFA intoned, claiming that negotiations within the Joint Control Commission “suggest a certain optimism.” Only two parties to the Georgian-Ossetian conflict are recognized internationally, there being no room for another Ossetian party, the Russian MFA claimed (Interfax, March 29, 30).

In its response, Georgia’s State Ministry for Conflict Settlement observed that only one party is recognized internationally, namely the Georgian government, which is negotiating toward a peaceful settlement with the Tskhinvali de facto authorities and is prepared to negotiate with any groups representing local interests. The ministry wondered aloud what interests are represented by the Russian military and intelligence officers who hold decisive power in Tskhinvali. Identifying the top carpetbagger team, Saakashvili noted, “the Morozovs, Barankeviches, Yarovoys, and Ivanovs have no ties whatsoever to this region” (Civil Georgia, Georgian Public Television, April 1, 2).

Georgia’s Restitution Law, in force since January 1, opens the door wide for the return of Ossetian refugees to their homes and offers compensation to all those who lost property, were displaced, or otherwise suffered from the 1990-92 conflict in and around South Ossetia. The authorities in Tskhinvali have rejected the law (and thus the benefits to Ossetians), fearing its political ramifications. International organizations, which had encouraged Georgia to pass this law and pledged to fund the compensation program, now seem confused by the Tskhinvali authorities’ refusal to cooperate in its implementation. In these circumstances, the Sanakoyev administration can and should become the Ossetian partner in implementing the restitution program, along with Tbilisi and international donors.

Along with South Ossetia, a situation of dual power has also developed in Abkhazia, following the return of Georgian authorities and the exiled authorities of Abkhazia to the upper Kodori Valley. There as well, a new set of legitimate interlocutors is emerging, with which international organizations will be able to cooperate. Channeling of the European Union’s and other donors’ reconstruction assistance through non-secessionist local authorities can become a major tool for conflict-settlement — as well as a test of the EU’s seriousness in that regard. Through these parallel authorities, Georgia can effectively work toward the goal so often cited by its Western partners — namely, to become increasingly attractive to South Ossetia and Abkhazia as a prerequisite to the peaceful resolution of the conflicts.

(Civil Georgia, Georgian Public Television, Interfax, March 29-April 5; see EDM, November 15, 17, December 4, 2006)