South Ossetia’s pro-Moscow leaders have lost no time rejecting Georgia’s offer for direct negotiations toward South Ossetian autonomy. President Mikheil Saakashvili’s offer, unveiled at an international conference in Batumi on July 10, entails a preparatory stage during which Georgia and international donor organizations would provide massive economic assistance to South Ossetia and also to Ossetians in the rest of Georgia (see EDM, July 12). At the same conference, Saakashvili assigned Prime Minister Zurab Nogaideli to initiate a series of meetings with South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoiti, continuing the practice established last year by Georgia’s late prime minister Zurab Zhvania (deceased in early 2005) and Kokoiti.
However, Kokoiti as well as the South Ossetian chief negotiator Boris Chochiev, self-styled minister of foreign affairs Murad Jioyev, and plenipotentiary representative in Moscow Dmitry Medoyev have spoken in unison, all turning down the offer. They cite three main excuses. First, they claim that all discussions, including those on political status, must take place within the “five-sided” format that includes Russia, Russia’s republic of North Ossetia, Georgia, South Ossetia, and the OSCE. For the same reason, these South Ossetian leaders claim that Tbilisi should have invited all the other four sides to prepare jointly, and then attend, the July 10 conference. (The OSCE did participate in the Batumi conference) (Interfax, July 8-11).
Indeed, the “five-sided” format guarantees the freeze that Georgia seeks to overcome in the negotiations. This decade-old format (similar to that in Moldova) suits Russia’s geopolitical agenda and also the OSCE’s narrow interests of institutional survival. Moscow is fiercely defending “the existing conflict-settlement formats” against proposals to broaden them. Direct talks might provide an alternative exit from the five-sided trap. In this case, Moscow finds it convenient to hide behind Tskhinvali in barring that option.
Tskhinvali’s second excuse claims that the Georgian offer is a public-relations gesture for Western comfort. In fact, Georgia’s proposal is asking Western organizations to donate resources for post-conflict reconstruction as the basis to a political settlement. While the incumbent South Ossetian leaders live on disbursements from Moscow and the shadow economy, they seem content to reject the prospect of economic relief that Georgia and international donors can bring to ordinary Ossetians.
The third excuse seems to be a novel one. In dismissing the autonomy offer, South Ossetia leaders now claim that the region has already decided to build its own statehood. Their position was until now that South Ossetia does not aspire to independence, but seeks accession to Russia — usually presented as unification with North Ossetia within the Russian Federation — and that secession from Georgia merely provides a transitional stage toward joining Russia. This claim was one of the peculiarities of the South Ossetia conflict all along. Now, however, an aspiration to statehood is being invoked as justification for rejecting the autonomy offer (Interfax, July 8-11).
Moscow has in recent weeks decided to increase the visibility of its control over South Ossetia. It has revealed its appointment of a “prime minister,” a “defense minister,” and a “chief of staff” who are Russians from central Russia. In early July, a Russian delegation headed by National Security Council Deputy Secretary Yuri Zubakov and including other siloviki officials, politicians, and state-connected businessmen visited South Ossetia. Their proposals in Tskhinvali were designed to cement the ongoing, de facto incorporation of South Ossetia into Russia.
At the July 10 conference in Batumi, one of the Ossetian participants objected to the term “Georgian-Ossetian conflict,” which is the Russian-imposed, OSCE-accepted standard usage. The conflict did involve “interethnic” issues in 1989-92, but has since turned into an interstate conflict, which Russia conducts against Georgia with a view to seizing a major strategic bridgehead south of the Caucasus range, a salient reaching almost to the vicinity of Tbilisi. While recognizing the conflict’s interstate nature, the answer is to persist in seeking direct dialogue with Ossetians and enlist international and incentives for such dialogue.