August will mark the fourth anniversary of the start of the Russo-Georgian war, sparked off by conflict over the disputed area of South Ossetia. Georgian-Ossetian problems go back at least 20 years and there is no solution in sight. This is because the status quo, so painful for South Ossetia, suits both Georgia and Russia very well, says Vakhtang Komakhidze
Between 1922 and 1990 the South Ossetia region was a partly autonomous area within Soviet Georgia, but with the general ferment and rise of nationalism that culminated in the break up of the USSR, it declared itself an independent republic. The Georgian government responded by abolishing South Ossetia's autonomy and attempting to retake the region by force. In 1992 an uneasy ceasefire was established, maintained by a peacekeeping force of Ossetians, Russians and Georgians.
Georgia, however, never accepted this situation (one of its main complaints being the continually increasing Russian economic and political presence in the region), and made repeated attempts to regain control of the area from the separatists. Tensions soon turned into armed conflict — first in 2004, then in 2008, when clashes escalated into full scale war. This war too ended in an uneasy peace after EU mediation, with the self-declared Republic of South Ossetia recognised by only five other world states (one of them Russia). The region witnessed a major humanitarian disaster, with high civilian casualties on both sides and many others forced to flee their homes. There was also huge damage to the infrastructure of both countries
Georgia’s 2008 law on occupied territories
Soon after the August conflict, the Georgian Parliament passed a contentious law on occupied territories. This law was designed to isolate the separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and to portray the continuing presence of Russian troops there in a negative light to the international community. However, the law has since been roundly criticised by that international community.
In January of this year, the EU’s Eastern Partnership programme published a report, which contains two important messages relating to the Georgian-Ossetian conflict. First, the European report makes it clear that it considers the law on occupied territories detrimental to any possibility of either developing relations with the separatist regions or a adopting strategy of effective engagement in conflict resolution. The EU’s second message is a direct call on Tbilisi to broaden its policy of engagement in conflict resolution through pragmatic cooperation with the de facto authorities in the separatist regions.
As soon as this report was published, Georgian officials stated that they categorically disagreed with the recommendation to review the law on occupied territories. The Georgian government also intended to ignore the EU’s second recommendation, because the given law explicitly restricts financial and business relations with the separatist regions. By refusing to comply with the recommendations, the Georgian government is effectively continuing its policy of extremely limited relations with both Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Resources for conciliation
Over the 20 years of political and military confrontation between Georgia and its two separatist regions, it is South Ossetia that has had relatively better chance for settling its problems. The most difficult time has undoubtedly been the last few years since the 2008 war. Relations are virtually frozen: on the one hand, the Georgian government is refusing to accept recommendations which could have allowed greater cooperation; on the other hand, it offers no alternative to the EU’s recommendations and says nothing about any prospects for settling the Georgian-Ossetian question.
The shadow of the August war still looms large in Georgian-Ossetian relations and the bombing of Tskhinvali, the region’s capital, by Georgian artillery in August 2008 dominates the Ossetian media to this day. Unofficially, however, the Ossetian side has already expressed a hope that economic relations will be restored, most particularly in the Georgian-Ossetian border zone, where they were cut off unilaterally by the Georgians before the war.
The Ergneti open-air market extends over several hectares right on the administrative border. It came into being spontaneously in the second half of the 1990s, thanks to improved relations between the then presidents, Eduard Shevardnadze and Lyudvig Chibirov. The Ergneti market was an unofficial free trade zone of sorts and the business operations that took place there led to a rapid improvement in Georgian-Ossetian relations. Georgian currency began to circulate in the South Ossetian financial sector and people were able to move around on both sides of the conflict zone almost without restriction. The level of trust in trade relations improved to such a degree that trading partners on both sides distributed goods without prepayment. Georgian and Ossetian NGOs ran joint projects; the subject of the 1991 war almost disappeared from the media on both sides.
By 2003 Georgia and Ossetia were ready to start negotiating a political settlement, but relations began to deteriorate with the arrival in power of President Mikheil Saakashvili. His most important pre-election pledge had been the restoration of the country's territorial integrity, but he tried to force events: under the banner of fighting corruption and improving the economy, the Georgian government closed down the Ergneti market, which accounted for a substantial part of South Ossetian revenue. The South Ossetian administration took this as a manifestation of political pressure. Georgian and Ossetian experts believed that economic regulation of the Ergneti market would have been possible, and its arbitrary closure led to a cooling in relations between the two sides and the eventual evaporation of any hope of a political settlement. The Georgian government responded with greater political pressure and militant rhetoric, which, in the end, escalated into the Russian-Georgian war of August 2008.
Georgia’s policy – keep playing the victim
The town of Akhalgori remained under Georgian jurisdiction after 1992, but was occupied by South Ossetia in 2008. During the August war, refugees from this town and from other parts of the conflict zone headed for the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. The Georgian government quickly created camps, with basic housing painted in bright colours, to accommodate many of the displaced. These camps are however located away from population centres, and the refugees have little hope of finding work. They live in extreme poverty and their brightly-painted houses are a constant reminder of the war.
After the end of the hostilities, the South Ossetian administration offered the Akhalgori refugees a chance of returning to their homes. A crossing was set up on the administrative border, enabling people to move in either direction. Given the difficult social conditions in the refugee camps, many refugees decided to return to the occupied territory.
The Georgian government made unofficial attempts to stop refugees from Akhalgori District returning to their homes, and when a significant number of them did decide to head back, the government cut off the supply of natural gas to the district.
The Georgian government, however, made unofficial attempts to stop refugees from Akhalgori District returning to their homes. When a significant number of them did decide to head back, the government cut off the supply of natural gas to the district. In the winter, the lack of heating led many of the refugees to go back to the refugee camps and even those who had wanted to go home chose to stay in the camps.
Camps full of refugees create a telling image of the consequences of Russian aggression. The coloured buildings, clearly visible from the motorway, are perceived as clear evidence of a government that cares about the refugees. However, independent journalists who go there to tell the real story often suffer aggression at the hands of people who, although they have no formal status, are obviously associated with the authorities. The Georgian government keeps a tight hold on its image as a victim of Russian aggression; by maintaining this status quo it divests itself of the responsibility to fulfil its political obligations.
Interpreting the past
As well as offering different versions of their past co-existence, the Georgian and Ossetian sides also interpret the causes of the conflict differently.
The Ossetians assert that they suffered discrimination, both in Soviet times and after. In Soviet times, social and economic conditions in the South Ossetian Autonomous Region, which was created against their will, were worse than in any other similar entity in the USSR and this sowed the seeds of conflict; the Georgian language was also mandatory in school education and public administration.
The Ossetians assert that they suffered discrimination, both in Soviet times and after.... for the Georgians, the causes of the conflict are identified with the interests of the Russian Federation
In 1990, instead of equal opportunities and a separate state, the Georgians offered the Ossetians discriminatory autonomous status; ethnic Ossetians were required to adopt a Georgian surname if they wanted to make a career. Ossetians also maintain that the conflict was made irreversible by the Georgian nationalist trends of the early 1990s, the illegal deportations from various Georgian territories of 60,000 ethnic Ossetians, and the thousands of victims of armed attacks and military operations. To this day, they see the Russian Federation as the guarantor of Ossetian rights.
For the Georgians, the causes of the conflict are identified with the interests of the Russian Federation, which has wanted to retain military and political influence throughout the post-Soviet space after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The Georgians view South Ossetia as an entity which has exploited the interests of the Russian Federation, becoming an instrument for the violation of Georgian territorial sovereignty and trying to create a separatist area on territory historically and internationally recognised as Georgian.
Georgia has not, of course, been the only post-Soviet republic where conflicts have flared up (Moldova, Azerbaijan and Tajikistan are others). Some republics (e.g. Ukraine, Lithuania and Estonia) have managed to solve similar problems through a peaceful political process. In the case of Georgia and Ossetia, both sides have counterarguments and plenty of questions to answer. The most important issue is that the language of international norms and constructive approaches has not quite replaced the language of emotional and historical grievance in Georgian-Ossetian relations. The vast majority of perpetrators of past ethnic crimes have yet to be identified and the issue of reparation for the victims of war and the refugees has not been resolved. People on either side of the border cannot visit their friends and families or conduct business across the border; the law on occupied territories acts as a brake on any prospect of better conditions.
Attitudes to a political settlement
The Russian Federation became involved in Georgian-Ossetian relations immediately after the start of the conflict. Its stance is simple and clear. Russia's political leaders state that they will never cooperate with Georgian President Saakashvili because they declare him to be a criminal under international law. This position makes it substantially easier for them to avoid questions about the negative consequences of their involvement in the conflict and preserve the status quo which serves their geostrategic interests.
The Georgian government keeps a tight hold on its image as a victim of Russian aggression; by maintaining this status quo it divests itself of the responsibility to fulfil its political obligations.
While the Ossetians are less categorical about restoring relations with Georgia, they are happy with their partial international recognition (the Russian Federation, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Nauru and Tuvalu recognised the republic of South Ossetia as an independent state after the August war). Under the protection of the Russian Federation on the one hand and with a rich Georgian-Ossetian cultural and social legacy to exploit on the other, Ossetia is hoping either to continue to present its ethnic identity as statehood, or to transform it into statehood.
The official Georgian stance on these issues is effectively limited to calling for the de-occupation of the disputed regions. It remains unclear what the government could offer South Ossetia to address unresolved problems and in exchange for the partial recognition to which it is already accustomed. Indeed, President Saakashvili never enters into debates with his political opponents, thus demonstrating his negative attitude to any public discussion of problems. The Georgian president is known for frequently advertising his achievements and he often uses hate language when talking about problem issues. The abolition of the law on occupied territories would oblige him to acknowledge political responsibilities in an area where he would not be able to make use of his police and security resources. He would lose any instruments for intensifying his confrontational stance towards Russia, which he appears to have inherited from the Cold War.
What do the people think?
Georgian government-controlled media organisations recently received instructions that the issue of the conflict should be completely dropped from their news programmes until after the parliamentary election which is to take place in October 2012.
However in the village of Nikozi, which lies on the administrative border with South Ossetia, one person told me after the August war: ‘When the Russians came, they arrested me. Every evening they let me go home and the following morning I would go back to jail of my own will. I know what freedom is, and I also know full well that their attitude to me was cynical. However, they didn’t have to let me go home. Perhaps they did so because I wanted to shoot at them as little as I wanted them to shoot at my children. They probably let me go home because I was a victim of a war I didn’t want. The Soviet Union was an evil thing for everyone: Russians, Baltic peoples, Europeans, Georgians and Ossetians. At some point, we will have to get rid of Soviet evil; at some point, we will have to start living together!’