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Not Just Talking About Peace, but Finding a Way There
Not Just Talking About Peace, but Finding a Way There

South Ossetia: The Burden of Recognition

All parties involved in the South Ossetia conflict should work to ensure freedom of movement and other basic cooperative mechanisms without status or other political preconditions, so as to reduce the risk of instability and meet basic local needs.

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Executive Summary

South Ossetia is no closer to genuine independence now than in August 2008, when Russia went to war with Georgia and extended recognition. The small, rural territory lacks even true political, economic or military autonomy. Moscow staffs over half the government, donates 99 per cent of the budget and provides security. South Ossetians themselves often urge integration into the Russian Federation, and their entity’s situation closely mirrors that of Russia’s North Caucasus republics. Regardless of the slow pace of post-conflict reconstruction, extensive highlevel corruption and dire socio-economic indicators, there is little interest in closer ties with Georgia. Moscow has not kept important ceasefire commitments, and some 20,000 ethnic Georgians from the region remain forcibly displaced. At a minimum, Russians, Ossetians and Georgians need to begin addressing the local population’s basic needs by focusing on creating freedom of movement and economic and humanitarian links without status preconditions.

The war dealt a heavy physical, economic, demographic and political blow to South Ossetia. The permanent population had been shrinking since the early 1990s and now is unlikely to be much more than 30,000. The $840 million Russia has contributed in rehabilitation assistance and budgetary support has not significantly improved local conditions. With its traditional trading routes to the rest of Georgia closed, the small Ossetian economy has been reduced to little more than a service provider for the Russian military and construction personnel. Other than the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), no international humanitarian, development or monitoring organisation operates in the region; dependent on a single unreliable road to Russia, the inhabitants are isolated.

Claims and counterclaims about misappropriation of reconstruction funds complicate the relationship between the de facto president, Eduard Kokoity, and his Russian prime minister and undermine internal cohesion. While Russia controls decision-making in several key spheres, such as the border, public order and external relations, it has allowed South Ossetian elites a degree of manoeuvre on such internal matters as rehabilitation, reconstruction, education and local justice. Preoccupied with security threats on its own North Caucasus territory, Moscow has preferred to work with Kokoity and his entourage, who have shown unshakeable loyalty, rather than try a different leadership.

All but four countries, including Russia, continue to recognise South Ossetia as part of Georgia, and Ossetians and Georgians cannot avoid addressing common problems much longer. Lack of freedom of movement and detentions of people trying to cross the administrative boundary line (ABL) spoil the lives of all, regardless of ethnicity and risk increasing tensions. The EU monitoring mission (EUMM) in Georgia could play a vital role in promoting stability and acting as a deterrent to further military action, but with Russia and South Ossetia resisting its access, its effectiveness and response capability is limited.

Periodic talks in Geneva bring Russia, Georgia and representatives from South Ossetia and Abkhazia together but are bogged down over the inability to conclude an agreement on the non-use of force. Much less effort has been made to initiate incremental, practical measures that would address humanitarian needs. Positions on status are irreconcilable for the present and should be set aside. The immediate focus instead should be on securing freedom of movement for the local population and humanitarian and development organisations, which all parties are blocking to various degrees. The South Ossetians should be pressed to respect the right to return of ethnic Georgians, while Tbilisi should be more supportive of the few who either stayed in South Ossetia or have been able to go home. The Ossetians should lift their conditionality on the work of the joint Incident Prevention and Response Mechanism (IPRM) that has been created to deal with dayto-day issues along the ABL.

It will take a long time to rebuild any trust between the South Ossetians and Georgians, but a start is needed on steps that can make the confrontation more bearable for the people and less risky for regional stability.

Tskhinvali/Tbilisi/Istanbul/Moscow/ Brussels, 7 June 2010

Olesya Vartanyan in front of the Russian peacekeepers' barracks in Tskhinvali during Russia-Georgia war in South Ossetia. Prior to joining Crisis Group as a Frank Giustra Fellow Olesya worked as a journalists. August 2008 Temo Bardzimashvili

Not Just Talking About Peace, but Finding a Way There

Six months into research fellowships made possible by Canadian philanthropist and Crisis Group Trustee Frank Giustra, we catch up with the three young experts now working with our Europe, Africa and Middle East teams. Olesya Vartanyan is specialising on her native South Caucasus.

As a Georgian journalist who published dispatches in the New York Times, Radio Liberty and elsewhere during turbulent times in the South Caucasus, Giustra Fellow Olesya Vartanyan was struck by the way that at International Crisis Group, she couldn’t immediately write about topics that she was researching.

“It felt very different. I was a journalist for ten years doing a lot of daily reporting, often on conflict regions. But now I have to look at these problems not just to describe them, but how to find a way out of them”, Olesya said. “Before, I did not have the time and resources to do very in depth and detailed research. Now I can spend days and weeks on certain issues, and draw on the expertise of my colleagues here in the region and in Brussels. I see things more deeply”.

There have been compensations for her byline drought. Her monthly assessments of conflict risk in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia have become an indispensable contribution of CrisisWatch, the organisation’s monthly tracker of more than 70 potential and actual conflicts around the world. She has also done field research in conflict zones, interviewed officials in regional capitals, analysed events for reporters, and fielded a plethora of meetings with diplomats, analysts and politicians seeking to know more about her new work.

Olesya is one of three Giustra Fellows who joined International Crisis Group six months ago and now support all aspects of Crisis Group’s mission to prevent deadly conflict, with a focus on how conflict causes crises of refugees and migration. The program, made possible by a $1 million gift by Canadian philanthropist and Crisis Group Trustee Frank Giustra, aims to give first-hand experience to young experts in the countries where Crisis Group works and to build capacity through training and mentorship of Crisis Group’s method of research and analysis.

Fitting Peace Processes to Reality

Many of Olesya’s conversations lead to her primary area of interest: improving the lot of more than one million of the 16 million people of the South Caucasus who are either refugees or internally displaced. Many of the wars that drove them from their homes took place one decade or more ago, but that doesn’t make the problem any simpler or safer.

“There is the same trend in all three conflicts in the South Caucasus: populations in Abkhazia, Ossetia, and Nagorno-Karabakh all feel abandoned”, Olesya said. “State processes to resolve the conflicts have taken on a life of their own. Officials spend weeks and months in their offices discussing a certain piece of legislation. But even if it gets adopted it often doesn’t work, because it’s not connected to the reality on the ground”.

This remoteness creates two problems. One is that even a small change made in a regional capital can have a big impact on people living in limbo or isolation as a result of conflict, either in terms of travel documents, roads, or access to health. Another is a great gap in understanding of basic issues.

“When I meet diplomats from outside the region, or even officials here, I sometimes have the feeling I’m talking about a different planet”, Olesya said. “Many do not have access to these places, they haven’t had time to focus on out-of-the-way conflicts, or competing political narratives prevent them from looking into them”.

The number of displaced people may be a fraction of that in a country like Syria, for instance, but Olesya is convinced there are many lessons to be learned.

Studying [IDPs] can show how unresolved old conflicts can transform into new ones, and trigger new waves of refugees.

“People worried about displacement and conflict must be wondering why I’m working on the South Caucasus, because it’s true there are no new refugees here”, she said. “But there are still so many IDPs – maybe 15 per cent of the Georgian population. Studying them can show how unresolved old conflicts can transform into new ones, and trigger new waves of refugees”.

From Description to Prescription

Olesya has another legacy issue to deal with: Crisis Group was most active in the South Caucasus in the 2000s, and debates continue about recommendations made for peace processes then. In most cases, though, she says she finds respect for the organisation because of its professional field work, and a perception that its analysis was unbiased.

Luckily, she can count on people remembering her past journalistic work as well. As she works on her first Crisis Group report, the long, field-researched analytical papers that are the organisation’s signature publication, her wide network of contacts is proving invaluable.

I can feel that we are making a change, creating a new beginning for the organisation in the region.

“It’s good to restart our relations. I exchange views nearly daily with our Europe and Central Asia Program Director, and I joined her in a regional capital to underline that Crisis Group is back. I can feel that we are making a change, creating a new beginning for the organisation in the region”, she said. “One thing has definitely changed since I was a journalist. Before, I would call people and they would set the narrative. Now people call me and I try to provide advice”.

It’s not all easy to explain to South Caucasus communities highly suspicious of outsiders bearing pens and notebooks. Ordinary people she interviews find it hard to understand her work. There are no bylines on Crisis Group reports, and not everything she writes down will be published. But there’s a deeper challenge as well.

“As a journalist, I would go and find human stories, check facts and get confirmation (or not) from officials, and write it in such a way that every man and woman could understand. At Crisis Group, it’s more analytical”, she said. “You have to take into account how to turn something into a recommendation. I can’t just talk about the problems, but also how to put ideas into real action. I may not be making peace, but I have to show how to make peace”.

Another novelty is that where once she would go out to find people for a quick interview, now people seek her out for discussions of an hour or more. And she sees the incremental effect of meeting key players again and again.

“Officials from the host governments are getting interested in what I have to say. I have a space, not to make dramatic changes, but to change details, or plant seeds to make them question themselves”, she said. “It’s a really interesting process and I am really enjoying it. Just because people aren’t being killed in the South Caucasus, doesn’t mean that the problem is being solved”.

Olesya Vartanyan is a native of the Republic of Georgia, and speaks fluent Russian and English as well as advanced Georgian and intermediate Armenian. An award-winning journalist, her reporting on the 2008 Georgia-Russia war was featured on the front page of The New York Times and in 2013 she received Georgia’s EU Monitoring Mission’s Special Prize for Peace Journalism for a report on the relatives of conflict victims. In 2014, Olesya received the UK’s Chevening Scholarship to do her MA in International Conflict Studies with the War Studies Department of King’s College, London.