On December 12, Eduard Kokoiti, the self-styled president of South Ossetia, sent a letter to Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and leaders of OSCE countries to familiarize them with an action plan for settling the 15-year old conflict.
Three successive stages call for 1) demilitarization of the conflict zone, restoration of confidence, and establishing security guarantees; 2) social-economic rehabilitation of the conflict zone; and 3) political settlement of relations between Tbilisi and South Ossetia. Relishing his role as a peacemaker, Kokoiti suggested that Georgia make 2006 the “Year of Confidence.” He also made clear that even with the action plan, South Ossetia would not renounce its de facto independence from Georgia.
Kokoiti’s plan envisions a working group, to be set up by February 1, 2006, within the quadripartite Joint Control Commission (JCC) responsible for implementing the 1992 Georgian-South Ossetian ceasefire and composed of representatives from Georgia, Russia, South Ossetia, and Russia’s republic of North Ossetia.
At a December 14 news conference Kokoiti, who proudly underlined his Russian citizenship, said that he would meet only with Saakashvili. Tbilisi considers such a meeting to be impossible, because it does not accept the legitimacy of a South Ossetian presidency. But also on December 14, Irakli Alasania, Saakashvili’s representative for Abkhaz conflict issues, stated that Saakashvili is ready to meet with Kokoiti’s Abkhaz counterpart, Sergei Bagapsh. This selective approach hardly contributes to confidence building between Tbilisi and Tskhinvali.
Kokoiti claimed that the plan Saakashvili presented when he addressed the UN General Assembly in September 2004 was only a slightly reworked version of ideas he had first raised in 2002. Kokoiti particularly stressed Russia’s role in settling the conflict. The Russian Foreign Ministry returned the favor by hailing Kokoiti’s plan in the December 14 formal statement.
Symptomatically Kokoiti’s proposals come amid tensions in the conflict zone and after Tbilisi’s diplomatic efforts to involve the United States and European Union in the settlement process. According to some sources, closed-door negotiations between Russian and American representatives were held in Moscow in mid-November. The OSCE ministerial council’s approval of Georgia’s peace plan in Ljubljana on December 5-6 also spurred the separatists.
The South Ossetians’ conciliatory tone also comes after some Russian media and pundits suggested that Moscow might give up on South Ossetia and Kokoiti’s regime. Some Georgian officials also assessed Tskhinvali’s move as Kokoiti’s desperate attempt to save his political future. According to Murad Jioev, South Ossetian “foreign minister,” U.S. Ambassador to Georgia John Tefft has been invited to Tskhinvali to familiarize himself with the South Ossetian proposals. The head of the OSCE Mission to Georgia, Roy Reeve, arrived in Tskhinvali on December 14 to discuss Kokoiti’s peace plan.
But another theory suggests that Kokoiti’s peace plan was written in Moscow in order to seize the diplomatic initiative from Tbilisi. Moscow evidently is hoping to buy the time in order to extend Russia’s presence in the region. Russian General Marat Kulakhmetov, commander of joint (but mostly Russian) peacekeeping troops in the conflict zone, has already stated the peacekeepers’ readiness to monitor implementation of the new peace initiative.
The South Ossetian separatists’ move annoyed Tbilisi, as it backs Georgia into a diplomatic corner. “It was a surprise for us,” Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Nogaideli admitted. He said many points of Kokoiti’s plan coincide with the peace initiatives on South Ossetia that Tbilisi first unveiled in January at the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly and refined and presented to the OSCE’s Permanent Council on October 27. The plan offers South Ossetia sweeping autonomy within the Georgian state (see EDM, November 23).
Nogaideli praised Russia’s support for the Georgian peace plan on South Ossetia at the recent OSCE ministerial meeting in Ljubljana. He also warned that Georgia would torpedo Russia’s admission to the WTO if Russia continues to block Georgian efforts to establish a customs checkpoint at the Roki tunnel (the sole passageway connecting South Ossetia with Russia’s North Ossetia).
Nogaideli flatly rejected the allegations of plans for a Georgian military invasion of South Ossetia, which Anatoly Barankevich, South Ossetian “defense minister,” raised in an interview with the Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya gazeta on December 12. “These preparations are sponsored by the United States and NATO… but 90% of South Ossetia residents have Russian passports. Therefore, Moscow should help its citizens in case of hostilities,” Barankevich said.
While Tbilisi officially praised Kokoiti’s peace plan, doubts remain about how Tbilisi could accept an initiative calling for normalizing relations between Georgia and South Ossetia as if they are separate states.
On December 13, Kokoiti said that South Ossetia is ready to sign an agreement with Georgia about non-resumption of hostilities. This initiative closely resembles the one Tbilisi is preparing to sign with Abkhazia. Both Ossetian and Abkhazia separatists consider such an agreement to be an additional approach to legitimize their independence.
It is unclear what Tbilisi actually would win from this move. Tbilisi may be acting under the guidance of international organizations and the Western diplomatic community, which fear a resumption of hostilities. In any case, new international players appear set to start the latest round of diplomatic games concerning South Ossetia.
(Kavkaz Press, December 12,13,14; Itar-Tass, December 12; Regnum, December 13,14; Civil Georgia, December 13-14; TV-Rustavi, TV-Imedi December 13-14)