South Ossetia: The Burden of Recognition
South Ossetia: The Burden of Recognition
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Report 205 / Europe & Central Asia 3 minutes

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

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