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Georgia’s South Ossetia Conflict: Make Haste Slowly
Georgia’s South Ossetia Conflict: Make Haste Slowly
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
After a Summer of Protests, Can Georgia’s Government Regain Its Lost Trust?
After a Summer of Protests, Can Georgia’s Government Regain Its Lost Trust?

Georgia’s South Ossetia Conflict: Make Haste Slowly

Tbilisi is taking imaginative steps towards solving the Georgian-Ossetian conflict but its new strategy may backfire, and frequent security incidents could degenerate into greater violence, unless it proceeds cautiously and engages all actors.

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Executive Summary

Tbilisi is taking imaginative steps towards solving the Georgian-Ossetian conflict but its new strategy may backfire, and frequent security incidents could degenerate into greater violence, unless it proceeds cautiously and engages all actors. Georgia is determined to solve the conflict but on its own terms and perhaps too quickly. The establishment of Dmitri Sanakoev and his alternative power centre in the Georgian-administered areas in the zone of conflict is alienating the broader Ossetian constituency. It would be a mistake to dismiss Ossetian aspirations together with the Kokoity regime in Tskhinvali. Tbilisi should resume substantive dialogue with Tskhinvali, while Sanakoev tries to steadily build credibility with the Ossetians.

Since hostilities resumed in summer 2004, confidence between Georgians and Ossetians has been low and the security situation volatile. The sides view the conflict differently, are mutually suspicious and trapped in conflicting fears about the other’s security calculations. Though they have signed numerous agreements in the past, all negotiations are stalled.

Georgia’s frustration with Russia’s role has reached an unprecedented level. It claims its conflict is really with Moscow, not the Ossetians, and cites Russian military aid to Tskhinvali and the presence of officers among the de facto authorities as powerful reasons why Russia cannot be an honest broker in the resolution process. Tbilisi has taken assertive actions to change the status quo on the ground as well as in the negotiation and peacekeeping formats, which it feels give Russia too much weight, but it should tackle the external and internal conflicts in parallel. Focusing on containing Russia, however legitimate, will not resolve interethnic issues and satisfy Ossetian aspirations and fears.

Georgia needs to work on changing perceptions. The Tskhinvali leadership is dependent on Russia, but South Ossetians consider that dependency a necessity and are wary of reunification with Georgia. The several peace initiatives Tbilisi has produced since 2004 are viewed as directed primarily at proving good intentions to the international community and so freeing Georgia to pursue a solution on its own terms.

Russia should step back from unilaterally supporting the de facto South Ossetian government of Eduard Kokoity and formally reconfirm Georgia’s territorial integrity. Together with Tskhinvali it should recognize that Tbilisi resents its vulnerability in existing negotiation and peacekeeping formats and will be unwilling to engage in a meaningful step-by-step process unless they are changed. If modifications are not negotiated, the political process could break down completely. A bigger role should be given to direct Georgian-Ossetian dialogue, and new external parties, such as the EU, should be included.

Tbilisi should consent to an agreement on non-use of force, while to lessen its concern for Moscow’s role, it needs a mechanism for observing movements from Russia into South Ossetia through the Roki tunnel. As most security incidents in the zone of conflict begin as criminal activity, the sides should cooperate on joint policing, bringing in an international, possibly EU, element but also with Russian involvement. This could lead ultimately to converting the Joint Peacekeeping Forces (JPKF) from a large, static mission to a slim, crisis management tool.

OSCE-led economic projects are the only area of practical cooperation in the zone of conflict. Donors have pledged €7.8 million to fund rehabilitation and development but Tbilisi and Moscow have also invested significantly in unilateral programs. Competing initiatives may improve local conditions but do not foster confidence or conflict resolution.

Tbilisi/Brussels, 7 June 2007

After a Summer of Protests, Can Georgia’s Government Regain Its Lost Trust?

Originally published in World Politics Review

This summer’s protests in Georgia led to changes to the country’s electoral system. But the country’s new Prime Minister, Giorgi Gakharia, is a man protesters wanted ousted from the last government, in which he led the Interior Ministry. In this interview with World Politics Review, Europe & Central Asia Program Director Olga Oliker and Analyst for EU Eastern Neighbourhood Olesya Vartanyan consider what Gakharia’s tenure will bring, and how the parliamentary elections next year might play out in this atmosphere.

Earlier this month, Georgia’s Parliament approved a new government led by Giorgi Gakharia, a controversial former interior minister who was nominated by the ruling Georgian Dream party despite his role in a violent crackdown on anti-government protests that rocked the capital, Tbilisi, this summer. Gakharia will now try to restore public confidence in the government ahead of parliamentary elections that are expected to be held early next year. Meanwhile, the main opposition party, the United National Movement, or UNM, also has work to do if it hopes to retake power. In an email interview with WPR, Olga Oliker and Olesya Vartanyan of the International Crisis Group discuss the challenges facing both the ruling party and the opposition in Georgia.

What kind of message does the approval of Giorgi Gakharia as prime minister send to the opposition?

It’s something of a “put up and shut up” message from Georgian Dream, not just to the opposition in Parliament but also to protesters. During the mass demonstrations that took place last summer, protesters demanded changes to the electoral system to allow for more proportional representation, which the government agreed to. Protesters also subsequently demanded that Gakharia step down as interior minister, a role from which he had ordered the violent dispersal of the protests. But instead of being ousted, he was promoted to prime minister, in a vote boycotted by opposition parties. That’s a pretty clear message.

Gakharia’s appointment is also a message to the opposition and to the country as a whole that Georgian Dream is planning to win the parliamentary elections that are expected early next year. The party’s popularity has been declining for some time; in the 2018 presidential election, Georgian Dream’s preferred candidate, Salome Zourabichvili, only won after being forced into a runoff, a far cry from the landslide victories of years past. Gakharia is close to Georgian Dream’s founder and chairman, Bidzina Ivanishvili, as are the new defense minister, Irakli Gharibashvili, and the interior minister, Vakhtang Gomelauri. With these personnel moves, the ruling party is ensuring that the government is united going into the campaign.

The next election will be an important test for Georgian Dream. The recently passed electoral reforms eliminated the required minimum threshold for parties to enter Parliament, which means there will be a greater diversity of parties. The majority party will therefore need to work harder to secure majorities for its laws. But a unified party will not be enough for Georgian Dream to secure a win; it will also need a policy agenda that rebuilds its popularity. Whether its leaders have a real plan for that is unclear.

What policy issues is Gakharia likely to focus on as prime minister? What are the most pressing challenges he faces in implementing his agenda?

Gakharia and his team have two goals that don’t fully align with one another. First is to win in the upcoming parliamentary elections, which means we can expect the government to focus on social programs to help the most vulnerable. But voters are frustrated that Georgian Dream has failed to spur the economic development and growth they expected during the party’s seven years in power. Finally making good on that promise would require a different sort of reform agenda: one that could attract foreign investment but might also involve public sector spending cuts, which could prove less popular in the short term.

Implementing reforms in the midst of an election campaign would be difficult, but Gakharia may be up to the task. He forcefully pushed through reforms during his time as interior minister, including the creation of a human rights department, the professionalization of regional law enforcement investigators, and increased transparency for crime statistics.

He will still have to deal with the fact that protesters and the opposition blame him for the violent crackdown on protests, which caused several injuries and resulted in the prosecutions of some demonstrators. More protests are likely, and would test the government’s ability to respond appropriately.

The other question for Gakharia is how to deal with simmering disputes in the Russian-backed breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Tensions have risen again this year over a police observation station that Georgia placed along its administrative boundary with South Ossetia. The latter responded by closing border crossings and a war of words erupted between leaders on both sides, tempered only by Russian and European efforts to mediate. Gakharia and his team will need to prevent the dispute from escalating, while at the same time standing up to Moscow and repairing economic ties with Russia. Balancing those priorities will be a tall order.

Given Georgian Dream’s declining popularity, how well-positioned is the United National Movement to prevail in the upcoming elections?

The UNM has loyal supporters, especially in the western regions of the country. It hasn’t been able to garner enough support to win previous elections, but its fortunes could turn next year, depending on the strength of opposition to the Georgian Dream-led government.

But the UNM has its own problems. It remains unofficially helmed by the divisive Mikheil Saakashvili, who served as president of Georgia from 2004 until 2013. His supporters remember him fondly for the sweeping democratic reforms he implemented during the 2000s, but his detractors blame him for the many domestic challenges facing Georgia in the aftermath of the five-day war with Russia in 2008.

He has also been away from Georgia for more than five years, and during that time he has fallen out of touch with the country he once led, while gaining considerable international notoriety. In 2015, he switched his citizenship to Ukraine in order to serve as governor of the Odessa region under then-President Petro Poroshenko, but the two subsequently had a falling-out and Saakashvili was deported last year. His Ukrainian citizenship has now been restored by President Volodymyr Zelensky, but a Georgian court convicted him in absentia of charges related to abuse of power last year, so he cannot return to his country of birth. A UNM victory next year would likely result in that conviction being reversed, but Saakashvili’s personal travails do not help the party’s chances.

The UNM has a good chance at maintaining its position as the dominant opposition force, but in order to win, it will need to cooperate with other parties. In some ways, this could be easier with the new electoral system, as there will be more parties to align with after the elections. But those parties’ members and leadership will balk at diktats from Saakashvili, so the UNM will need to find a way to become more independent of his influence.


Program Director, Europe and Central Asia
Senior Analyst, South Caucasus