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Homepage > Regions / Countries > Europe > South Caucasus > Georgia > Georgia: Avoiding War in South Ossetia

Georgia: Avoiding War in South Ossetia

Europe Report N°159 26 Nov 2004


A precarious peace is back in place between Georgia and South Ossetia after the long-frozen conflict nearly became a hot war again and drew in Russia when dozens were killed in August 2004 fighting. President Saakashvili tried to break a twelve-year deadlock and take another step to restore Georgia's territorial integrity by undermining the regime in Tskhinvali, but seriously miscalculated. A more comprehensive approach is needed to resolve this conflict peacefully. The onus is on Georgia, with help from its international partners, to increase the security and confidence of people living in the zone of conflict, promote economic rehabilitation and development, ensure the right of Ossetians to return to South Ossetia and Georgia proper, and create arrangements guaranteeing South Ossetia effective autonomy. South Ossetia must enter a real dialogue with Georgia on its status and not use the winter to force Georgian villagers still in South Ossetia to leave their homes.

After peacefully resolving its decade-old conflict with Ajara earlier this year, the Georgian decision-makers turned their attention to South Ossetia. In May 2004 they believed their Ajarian success could easily be repeated. They considered that South Ossetia's de facto president, Eduard Kokoity, had little democratic legitimacy or popular support and that, as in Ajara, the people would rapidly switch loyalty from Tskhinvali to Tbilisi.

The initial strategy aimed to address the political-economic causes of the conflict through an anti-smuggling operation, aimed primarily at closing the sprawling Ergneti market on the outskirts of Tskhinvali, in the Georgian-South Ossetia zone of conflict. The theory was that Kokoity and a small circle of officials around him were maintaining control over South Ossetia through their involvement in black market trade. In parallel, the Georgian side organised a humanitarian "offensive" to provide people in the region with the benefits of economic and cultural projects.

The strategy backfired. Rather then capitalising on real popular discontent, it caused many average citizens who depended on illegal trade for their economic survival to regroup around Kokoity. Ossetian de facto authorities successfully portrayed Georgian moves as aggressive first steps towards a remilitarisation of the conflict that had enjoyed a ceasefire since 1992. Kokoity's popular support rose as he described himself as the only leader capable of guaranteeing Ossetians' security, as well as their political, economic and cultural interests. Assistance sent by Tbilisi was portrayed as a cheap attempt to buy support.

The Georgian approach failed in large part because it was based on a limited analysis of the causes of the conflict. Since 1992 little progress has been made to bring Ossetians and Georgians closer together. Many of the grievances and ambitions developed during the war that broke out as the Soviet Union was dying remain tough obstacles to peace. Unless they are addressed, efforts to re-integrate South Ossetia into Georgia are almost certain to lead again to violence.

In the past few months Georgia has shifted gears and begun to emphasise the geopolitical nature of the conflict, terming it "a problem between Georgia and Russia". Russia does play a special role. But it is unlikely that Georgia can successfully persuade the U.S. or European Union to duel with Moscow over South Ossetia.

A new ceasefire holds since 19 August 2004. At a high level meeting between Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania and South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoity on 5 November in Sochi, an agreement on demilitarisation of the zone of conflict was signed. Some exchange of fire continues in the zone of conflict, apparently primarily initiated by the Ossetian side, but there is still cause for optimism that the conflict will be resolved non-violently since all sides seem to be reconsidering their policies. Georgia's legitimate insistence on the preservation of its territorial integrity needs to be balanced with the Ossetians' concerns for the protection of their national minority rights.

For the negotiations that are needed with Russia, South and North Ossetia to succeed, Georgia must show it is putting in place political, economic, legal, and social conditions to guarantee Ossetians equal rights in a multi-national and democratic state. The greatest lesson from the May-August period is that attempts to resolve the conflict swiftly will lead to war. President Saakashvili seemed to recognise this when, at the UN General Assembly, he pledged to engage in a "stage-by-stage settlement plan". To avoid further casualties and displacement, Georgia, together with its international partners, must implement a comprehensive strategy to resolve the root causes of the conflict and make non-violent re-integration possible.


To the Government of Georgia and the de facto Government of South Ossetia:

1.  Stop all armed hostilities and implement step-by-step demilitarisation of South Ossetia with respect to all troops not part of the Joint Peacekeeping Forces (JPKF) or local police, starting in the zone of conflict.

2.  Implement all previously agreed upon JCC decisions and bilateral Georgian-Russian agreements regarding the conflict.

3.  Engage citizens and civil society in conflict resolution efforts.

To the Government of Georgia:

4.  Fund in the 2005 budget the costs of social services and economic development in and around the zone of conflict, confidence building measures, rehabilitation of communities in Georgia proper to which Ossetian refugees may return, and a new Russian-Georgian inter-state body to facilitate return and economic rehabilitation in the zone of conflict.

5.  Adopt a law providing restitution of property and compensation to all affected by the 1990-1992 conflict that takes into consideration the comments of the Venice Commission and other international experts, and discuss with the JCC creation of a property claims commission.

6.  Adopt legislation permitting those affected by the conflict to hold dual citizenship.

7.  Agree with Russia, and in particular North Ossetia, on measures to boost economic cooperation, coordinate custom policies and facilitate the free movement of goods and persons along the Transcaucasian highway and Russian military highway.

8.  Deal with the legacy of the 1990-1992 conflict by investigating war crimes, prosecuting those responsible, and adopting legislation to amnesty those who participated in the conflict but committed no war crimes.

9.  Open discussion on the status of South Ossetia with local and international experts, including experts from the parties to the conflict, with a view to developing a comprehensive concept within the framework of an overall administrative-territorial reform of Georgia.

To the de facto Government of South Ossetia:

10.  Guarantee full freedom of movement on the territory of South Ossetia and do not obstruct implementation of economic rehabilitation, refugee return, or confidence-building measures agreed upon at the JCC and within Georgian-Russian bilateral talks.

11.  Participate in a dialogue with the Georgian side on means to reach a final resolution to the conflict, including determination of the future administrative-territorial status of South Ossetia and the work of a property claims commission.

To the Government of Russia:

12.  Prevent any armed formations or weapons not approved within the JCC framework from crossing into South Ossetia from Russia.

13.  Create with Georgia an inter-state body on return and economic rehabilitation in the zone of conflict and work with Georgia to devise and fund from 2005 budgets programs to facilitate return and economic rehabilitation in South Ossetia.

14.  Together with Georgia agree on measures to boost economic cooperation, coordinate customs policies, and facilitate the free movement of goods and persons along the Transcaucasian and Russian military highways.

15.  Support the increase of OSCE staff in Tskhinvali and the implementation of its mandate to work throughout South Ossetia.

To the Joint Control Commission (JCC):

16.  Meet at least monthly and agree to hold bi-annual meetings between the de facto president of South Ossetia and the prime minister of Georgia.

17.  Establish a technical working group, including international experts and ethnic Georgians living in South Ossetia, to define the territorial-administrative status of South Ossetia.

18.  Establish a property claims commission with participation of Georgian, Ossetian and international experts, create a working group to investigate any claims of human rights abuse in the zone of conflict, and reinvigorate the work of the Special Coordination Centre (SCC) to facilitate law enforcement cooperation.

To the OSCE and its Member States:

19.  Be more pro-active in the search for a political settlement to the conflict, increase the number of OSCE monitors and officers in South Ossetia, and add civilian police, democratisation/human rights, and political officers to the Tskhinvali Field Office.

To the European Union:

20.  Play a more active role as mediator through the EU Special Representative to the South Caucasus in the effort to develop a consensus between Georgia and Russia on the final status of South Ossetia.

21.  Consider re-allocating some funds of the third rehabilitation program for rebuilding houses and infrastructure in Georgia proper for returning Ossetian refugees, approve funding for a fourth rehabilitation program, and encourage the design of joint Georgian-Ossetian economic and community development projects.

To the United States Government:

22.  Secure commitments when donating military equipment or ammunition to the Georgian military that these will not be used for offensive actions in the South Ossetian or Abkhaz disputes and extend USAID programs and funding to support confidence-building measures between Ossetians and Georgians.

To the Wider International Community:

23.  Support existing agreements with additional financial assistance, especially in the field of economic development, refugee return and confidence building.

Tbilisi/Brussels, 26 November 2004