Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 98

A series of incidents staged in recent days by South Ossetian secessionist forces seeks to provoke the Georgian government into retaliating, so as to derail a political process that Moscow and Tskhinvali cannot control. That political process involves the consolidation of Tbilisi-backed alternative authorities under Dmitry Sanakoyev in South Ossetia and the beginning of talks between those authorities and the Georgian government toward autonomy for South Ossetia within Georgia.

On May 11, Sanakoyev spoke from the rostrum of the Georgian parliament for the first time in an official capacity, as head of the South Ossetian interim administrative unit. Based in the village of Kurta, this interim administration exercises effective control over Georgian and mixed Ossetian-Georgian areas of South Ossetia.

Speaking to the Georgian parliament in the Ossetian language, Sanakoyev defined his administration’s first priority as restoring mutual trust between Ossetians and Georgians and channeling economic assistance to the region. The 17-year old conflict, he said, has condemned South Ossetia to extreme poverty, in the interest of secessionist authorities and their “foreign overlords.” These “stir up enmity, in pursuit of their own geopolitical strategies” and have a vested interest in “maintaining constant fear and hatred” between Ossetians and Georgians. Thus, the people of South Ossetia “have been taken hostage by authorities that, on orders from our ‘northern neighbor,’ seek to perpetuate the conflict.”

Sanakoyev called for a Georgian-Ossetian political dialogue toward establishing an autonomous South Ossetia within Georgia. “My people,” he said, “have a future only in an independent and democratic state of Georgia” that could guarantee broad autonomy for Ossetians. Such autonomy would involve institutions of self-government, political representation at all levels, and preservation of the Ossetian ethnic and linguistic identity. It would be a “genuine autonomy based on European standards,” as distinct from a Soviet-legacy type of autonomy involving local “criminal lawlessness” and Russian interests.

A situation of dual power has thus developed in South Ossetia. The process began with the November 12, 2006, referendum and “presidential” election in Georgian-controlled areas of South Ossetia, where many residents from secessionist-controlled areas managed to turn out for the vote. The proposition calling for autonomy won the referendum and Sanakoyev won election as “president.” The results of this balloting practically offset the concurrent referendum and election in Russian-controlled areas, which produced majorities in favor of secession from Georgia and the re-election of Eduard Kokoiti as “president.”

Sanakoyev was inaugurated on December 1 in Kurta as alternative leader in South Ossetia and began forming an alternative local administration. On January 1, Georgia’s restitution law went into effect, stipulating compensation to all victims of the conflict, restitution of their property, and financial support for refugees who return to their homes. Although most Ossetian beneficiaries of this legislation are from villages outside the administrative boundaries of South Ossetia, the restitution law marks a significant confidence-building step toward the population of South Ossetia as well. Within the region, Sanakoyev launched the public movement “People of South Ossetia for Peace.” In April, the Georgian parliament adopted the law on creating an interim administrative unit in South Ossetia, with a view to establishing an autonomous entity through negotiations with the unit’s leadership.

During the first week of May, Parliament Chair Nino Burjanadze headed a multiparty delegation to Kurta for discussions with Sanakoyev’s team, followed by President Mikheil Saakashvili’s meeting with Sanakoyev. The discussions broached for the first time issues related to South Ossetia’s eventual autonomous status, distribution of competencies between local and central authorities, the region’s budget, and handling of economic assistance and development projects. On May 10, Saakashvili appointed Sanakoyev as head of the administrative unit and delegated to him the corresponding prerogatives, in accordance with the law adopted the preceding month. Sanakoyev took the oath of office, in the Georgian and Ossetian languages, to “work to promote the interests of the Ossetian people and peace between Ossetians and Georgians.”

The administrative unit has been created with an interim status, as a transitional stage toward full-fledged autonomy for South Ossetia. The Georgian government will hold the political dialogue with Sanakoyev but is also announcing its readiness for talks “any time, anywhere” with Kokoiti’s authorities based in Tskhinvali. However, any talks with those Russian-installed authorities would only be useful if focused on security in the conflict zone, demilitarization, free movement of persons and goods, suppression of smuggling, and other issues not directly related to political settlement.

Tbilisi’s dialogue on political settlement will almost certainly develop with the Kurta-based administration. Channeling international economic assistance through the Kurta, rather than through Tskhinvali, can make a major contribution to the success of this initiative.

(Civil Georgia, The Messenger, Rustavi-2 Television, South Ossetian Press and Information Service, May 7-17)