At a conference in Batumi on July 10, President Mikheil Saakashvili and the government of Georgia along with Georgian NGOs unveiled a blueprint for the stage-by-stage resolution of the conflict in South Ossetia. Foreign envoys accredited in Tbilisi, American and European experts, Georgian government officials, Ossetian NGOs in Georgia, and several professionally active Ossetians from Georgia who currently live in Russia’s North Ossetia as refugees, participated in the conference.
Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and South Ossetia’s authorities in Tskhinvali rejected Tbilisi’s invitations to attend the conference. Some individuals in South Ossetia who were interested in attending were prevented from doing so by the authorities there.
In his speech to the conference, Saakashvili underscored that Georgia belongs to all of its inhabitants including Ossetians, who stand to benefit along with all citizens from the country’s democracy and modernization. Ruling out any military solution to the conflict, Saakashvili also “absolutely ruled out secession as long as Georgia exists and has a government.” He went on to urge Russia to observe generally accepted international norms in Russia-Georgia relations.
The Batumi initiative fleshes out Saakashvili’s autonomy proposal to South Ossetia, offered in his January 24, 2005, speech in Strasbourg to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (see EDM, January 25). The set of documents issued in Batumi is an inter-agency product of the Georgian government, with the office of the State Minister for Conflict-Resolution Affairs as coordinating agency. The documents can add up to a draft road map, focusing on the road’s first stages.
Two major innovations characterize this offer. First, the emphasis falls overwhelmingly on economic incentives, preparatory to the stage of political negotiations on the status of an autonomous South Ossetia within Georgia. Second, Georgia proposes to pursue conflict-settlement in South Ossetia parallel to reconciliation with South Ossetians who live, or lived, in Georgia outside the boundaries of the former South Ossetian Autonomous Region. The Georgian government regards autonomy for South Ossetia and reconciliation with Ossetians outside the autonomy as twin aspects of the task of rebuilding Georgian-Ossetian relations within a democratic Georgia.
Indeed, out of Georgia’s 164,000 Ossetians, only 67,000 resided in the autonomous region prior to the 1989-92 armed conflict. A larger number, 97,000, resided mostly in dispersed settlements outside the autonomous region, in some cases at considerable distances from it, and having hardly any ties with Tskhinvali. The great majority of those who fled to North Ossetia originate from the settlements situated outside the autonomy. An estimated 50,000 linger in North Ossetia in squalid conditions. The refugees from the formerly autonomous South Ossetia were far fewer in number, and most of them have since returned from North Ossetia to their homes around Tskhinvali. Some 30% of South Ossetia’s population is Georgian.
Thus, the Georgian government recognizes that the Ossetian issue needs to be addressed comprehensively in both of its dimensions, in order to resolve the conflict and overcome its consequences. To this end, the blueprint just released in Batumi offers to repatriate all the refugees wishing to return, to restitute their property, and to compensate all the victims of the armed conflict, both from the territory of the former autonomy and from the rest of Georgia, irrespective of whether they choose to return or not.
Tbilisi is currently drafting a law on restitution and rehabilitation of victims of the conflict. The deadline for enactment is in October. Under this law, a tripartite commission — to consist of equal numbers of Georgian officials, Ossetians, and representatives of international organizations — will make decisions in all individual cases of property restitution and/or compensations for persecution or damages suffered during the conflict and in its aftermath (loss of property or job, unlawful arrest, forced flight). Georgia will establish a special fund in its state budget to finance these measures and will solicit assistance from governments and international donor organizations to fund the lion’s share of this program.
Thus, Georgia becomes the first country in the region to offer repatriation, restitution, and compensation to refugees in the context of conflict-settlement efforts. Tbilisi’s offer stands in stark contrast to Yerevan’s and the Abkhaz authorities’ refusal to come to terms with the ethnic cleansing they perpetrated with military force.
As regards South Ossetia itself, the Georgian government proposes to take immediate steps toward: restoring the railway, bus, and taxi connections from Georgia’s interior to Tskhinvali; pay pensions to the region’s residents retroactively from 1991; resume deliveries of humanitarian aid; and launch a small- and medium-size enterprise development support program (co-financing, loans and loan-guarantees, interest-subsidization) designed to generate jobs and reduce the recruiting pool of armed criminal groups. Again, Georgia will provide some funding, but international donors such as the European Union and United Nations programs will be asked to contribute more than Georgia possibly could.
On the political side, ahead of negotiations on South Ossetia’s status, Tbilisi proposes: official status for the Ossetian language, in parallel with the Georgian language; dual citizenship, Georgian and Russian, for those Ossetians who have taken up Russian citizenship; formation of a joint commission to investigate crimes committed on either side during the armed conflict and in its aftermath; guaranteed representation of South Ossetians in Georgia’s parliament and in government departments; a quota of 50 places annually for Ossetians in the newly-created Zurab Zhvania School of Public Administration (which prepares members of ethnic minorities for careers in Georgia’s civil service); air time on national television and radio for South Ossetian authorities and for Ossetian cultural programs; assistance for the creation of non-governmental organizations, and consultations with these, once created; and working out inserts on Ossetian history in school textbooks on Georgian history, and vice-versa.
Preparing for the negotiations on South Ossetian autonomy, Tbilisi and Tskhinvali shall consult with the Council of Europe’s Commission for Democracy through Law (Venice Commission) aiming to produce a first draft by September-October.
Russia is strongly placed, and will almost certainly attempt, to frustrate Georgia’s proposals and any prospects for a democratic political settlement in South Ossetia. Hands-on involvement by the European Union and other international organizations will be essential for any significant progress.
(Batumi conference documents, July 10)