On September 21 Georgia organized an international conference within South Ossetia about that conflict. It was the first event of this type ever held in any post-Soviet conflict area, and it was held despite an attempt by the Russian military to stop it. Ambassadors and staff from all European Union and NATO member countries’ embassies, as well as from the European Union and Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe missions, attended the conference, along with members of the Georgian government and presidential chancellery. The convoy of 15 diplomatic cars, flying their respective flags, moved demonstratively through South Ossetia to the conference venue in Tamaresheni, a Georgian-inhabited village adjacent to the seat of the Russian-installed authorities in Tskhinvali.
Under the heading, “Georgia’s Ongoing Reforms: Main Directions of Foreign and Domestic Policy,” Georgian speakers highlighted the linkage between conflict-resolution efforts and the internal reforms that should make Georgia attractive to the populations in secessionist enclaves. Davit Bakradze, state minister for settlement of conflicts, noted that this conference and follow-up activities are designed to inform the local population about the Georgian government’s policies and its work. Georgia is earmarking a growing volume of reconstruction and humanitarian aid, as well as some infrastructure development assistance, to villages in South Ossetia. Reviewing those programs, Bakradze also noted the urgency of international economic development assistance in the new political situation that Georgia is creating in South Ossetia.
Dmitry Sanakoyev, head of the Tbilisi-backed, locally based South Ossetian authorities competing with those in Tskhinvali, delivered the keynote speech. He noted that Russia holds on to the area in order to pressure Georgia politically and militarily. In this situation, local people have become “hostage to an imperial policy” that would deprive them of development prospects, he remarked. Consequently, working-age men can only find employment in Russian-created military formations. Sanakoyev called on Russia to stop rendering such “support,” which is harmful to his fellow-South Ossetians. Noting that Moscow acts as a spoiler of all peaceful initiatives in this protracted conflict, he urged international organizations and governments to persuade Russia to adopt a more constructive approach.
Stung, Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs expressed apprehension in a September 22 statement that “international recognition of the Sanakoyev regime might be the next step,” after the international conference just held with massive diplomatic presence. Moscow’s statement objected to the entry of foreign diplomats in South Ossetia without prior notification to the Russian “peacekeeping” command and in violation of the “special status” of this territory. Claiming that such actions “disrupt the negotiating process and cast total doubt on the prospect of resolving the conflict,” Moscow’s statement warned that Russia would in the future take any necessary countermeasures, based on Russia’s “peacekeeping” and “mediating” missions and its responsibility for the security of Russia’s citizens in South Ossetia.
These claims and warnings are insolvent on multiple counts. The territory’s purported special status is only a Russian unilateral move to carve out a “zone of the Georgian-South Ossetian conflict” from Georgia’s territory. Neither this move nor the “zone” have standing in international law, which allows Georgian and international officials full rights to enter without authorization from Russian “peacekeepers,” who have no legal standing either. The existing negotiating process has been proven for many years to offer no prospects of resolving the conflict; thus there is no process to disrupt and no prospects to preserve. Russia’s mediating and peacekeeping roles were self-appointed, and the unilateral conferral of Russian citizenship on residents of South Ossetia (or Abkhazia) does not authorize Russia to intervene as their protector on internationally recognized Georgian territory.
Moscow did not risk ordering its military to stop the holding of the conference but tried to disrupt it through political “active measures.” In the run-up to the event, Russian state-controlled media disseminated stories that Georgia was preparing a paramilitary operation to capture Tskhinvali under the cover of a people’s “peace march.” Based on this fabrication, Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs warned Georgia against resorting to force. Tskhinvali authorities, in turn, depicted Georgia as threatening to unleash an armed confrontation with the people of South Ossetia. The Georgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs dismissed those stories, regretting that “Georgia’s efforts to consolidate a democratic, law-based state are perceived by Russia’s leading circles as actions against Russia’s state interests.”
On the eve of the September 20 conference, Tskhinvali authorities celebrated the 17th anniversary of the founding of the “republic of South Ossetia, ” which was created in 1990 as South Ossetian Soviet Socialist Republic on instructions from Moscow. A 300-strong group of Don Cossacks attended the anniversary celebrations in Tskhinvali, apparently as a signal from Russian authorities that paramilitary “volunteers” were available to assist South Ossetia. Parallel celebrations of the anniversary were held in Vladikavkaz by the authorities of Russia’s North Ossetia.
Officially authorized speeches at these celebrations called for the unification of North Ossetia and South Ossetia into a single unit within the Russian Federation. Such calls are not new, but they became more explicit and more coordinated on this occasion than ever before. Should this recur, Russia will have become a sponsor of ethnic irredentism in the Caucasus. The idea of a Greater Ossetia, however, is only a Matryoshka-like arrangement to create a subunit within a Greater Russia on both sides of the Caucasus. Unveiling this idea at this time seems intended to forestall the loss of Moscow’s control over developments in South Ossetia, as in Georgia generally.
(Civil Georgia, The Messenger, Rustavi-2, Interfax, South Ossetian Press and Information Service, September 19-23)