South Ossetia — An Issue Between Tbilisi And Moscow

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 1 Issue: 58

Georgia’s ongoing effort for a peaceful reintegration of South Ossetia is not only a legitimate national project, but also an attempt at rehabilitating the fundamentals of international law in the South Caucasus. This effort also advances Western strategic interests, which require a secure, economically sound Georgia, no longer vulnerable to political blackmail and economic hemorrhage via Russian-controlled secessionist enclaves.

Initiated by President Mikheil Saakashvili in May of this year, the process of reintegrating South Ossetia envisages a one- to two-year time span, and follows two parallel tracks: a hearts-and-minds campaign and suppression of the contraband that for years drained Georgia’s economy through this region. To win Ossetian hearts and minds, Georgia has offered to distribute fertilizer to farmers free of charge, provide ambulatory medical care gratis, disburse old-age pensions, and restore bus and railway service between South Ossetia and the rest of Georgia. Meanwhile the anti-smuggling campaign hits at the economic basis of South Ossetia’s ruling group, which operates symbiotically with contraband networks under the protection of elements in Russian military and security services.

Ossetian villages have welcomed the provision of Georgian aid. South Ossetia’s security troops and their Russian handlers responded by blocking most deliveries of Georgian aid and trying to turn what Tbilisi envisages as a peaceful process into a military standoff — the only type of contest that Russia and the secessionist leadership can win.

Saakashvili’s team proceeds from the premise that Russian President Vladimir Putin can be persuaded to work with Georgia on this issue and thus to lay a durable basis for normal good-neighborly relations. Personalization of Georgia-Russia relations at the presidents’ level can therefore be useful. Tbilisi will go a long way toward encouraging this tendency in Moscow. However, influential Russian circles seem intent on sabotaging such a policy. Putin has the means to rein them in. Tbilisi will give him due credit if he does curb them (as he did in May over Ajaria) but will, by the same token, hold Putin responsible if he licenses them to threaten Georgia (as he did throughout his first presidential term).

Tbilisi knows that elements in Russia’s military and security services may — with or without a nod from the Kremlin — provoke clashes in South Ossetia as a means to halt Georgia’s economic and administrative reforms, discourage Western investment, and ruin the country’s international reputation. Tbilisi is determined to avoid a repetition of 1991-93, when it was dragged into armed clashes in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Now, however, the issue is being tackled in the context of Georgia’s economic recovery and political consolidation. Thus, time works in favor of Georgia and its peaceful reintegration.

Georgia (the government as well as society) takes the view that there is no “Georgian-South Ossetian ethnic conflict” and no basis for such a conflict. Moreover, the Russian-installed leadership of South Ossetia is not a player in its own right and no valid interlocutor. The issue is to be resolved by Tbilisi and Moscow on the interstate level, with the international community’s involvement.

For its part, Moscow seeks to turn the tense situation into an opportunity to confirm and strengthen Russia’s control over the monitoring and negotiating mechanisms. It asserts that Georgia and South Ossetia are parties to a conflict, and Moscow the arbiter; it treats Georgia and South Ossetia as coequal parties; it refers all issues to the Russian-controlled Joint Control Commission (JCC), and insists on maintaining the JCC in its present form as the sole conflict-management mechanism. The JCC includes Georgia, South Ossetia, Russia, Russia’s North Ossetia, and the OSCE — a format constructed by Moscow to isolate Georgia, ensure multiple representation of Russia, and exclude any direct Western role.

Moscow realizes that Georgia’s initiatives may halt and reverse Russia’s creeping annexation of South Ossetia. Putin had authorized the policy of de facto annexation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia by conferring Russian citizenship on local residents en masse and erasing the Russia-Georgia border in the Abkhaz and South Ossetian sectors. Such moves, unthinkable on the part of any state in the contemporary international system, were nevertheless tolerated without murmur by the United Nations, the OSCE, and other international organizations, and went unchallenged by Georgia’s partner countries in the West. The same countries can now signal their support to Georgia’s peaceful efforts to undo those quasi-annexations.