Georgia: "Alternative" South Ossetia leader says Europe key to peace

News and Press Release
Originally published
Molly Corso

An unprecedented three-day visit to Brussels by Georgia-backed "alternative" South Ossetia leader Dmitri Sanakoyev is the latest step in Tbilisi's campaign to align conflict resolution in Georgia with European, rather than Russian, interests. Despite Georgian optimism, some international observers note that there is little chance the mission will result in Sanakoyev's inclusion in peace talks over the South Ossetia conflict zone.

In a June 26 speech to the European Union-Georgian Parliamentary Cooperation Committee in Brussels, Sanakoyev told parliamentarians that it is his "deep belief" that Europe is "the key" to conflict resolution in Georgia. Sanakoyev shied away from details about the region's 15-year conflict with Georgia or his own role in that struggle. Instead, the onetime separatist fighter concentrated on the need for dialogue between Georgians and Ossetians and the potential role of the EU as a mediator.

"The key to resolution is in a dialogue with all local powers," he said, according to a Russian-language transcript received from the European Commission in Tbilisi. In a clear reference to pro-Russian South Ossetian separatists, Sanakoyev charged that some of these "powers" have abandoned peace talks between Georgia, Russia, South Ossetia and the Russian autonomous republic of North Ossetia "due to service to an outside power that brings harm to their own population."

Sanakoyev also made several pleas for more financial support to help jumpstart Georgia's ambitious property restitution plan for victims of the 1991-1992 conflict over the breakaway region.

The speech -- reportedly given in the Ossetian language -- marks the latest in a long line of diplomatic efforts by Tbilisi to have Sanakoyev seen as the sole legitimate leader of South Ossetia.

In April, Georgian officials arranged for him to deliver a speech about the South Ossetian conflict zone before a North Atlantic Treaty Organization Parliamentary Assembly seminar in Tbilisi. [For details, see the Eurasia Insight archive]. In May, the 37-year-old ethnic Ossetian was named the official head of a temporary administrative unit based in Kurta, a village in Georgian-controlled South Ossetia that is a mere five miles from Tskhinvali, the region's separatist-controlled capital. Some Georgian analysts have used that title to explain Sanakoyev's appearance at international gatherings. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

Including Sanakoyev in the peace talks about South Ossetia is another long-term goal for both Tbilisi and the Kurta administration. In November 2006 elections held in Georgian-controlled parts of the territory, Sanakoyev was elected as an "alternative" president to separatist South Ossetia's President Eduard Kokoity. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

In remarks to the press on June 23, Sanakoyev referred to his visit to Brussels as "our answer" to separatist allegations that his political movement, People of South Ossetia for Peace, and he have no legal platform to participate in the negotiations about South Ossetia.

"This is our answer to those allegations, which say that neither governmental nor international organizations want to work with us," he said according to media reports. "It is clear for everybody, that our administration is ready to cooperate with any structures of the European Union and the European Parliament."

In a June 25 speech to the Organization of Black Sea Economic Cooperation, President Mikheil Saakashvili added to that message with a prediction that Georgia is "close" to resolving the 15-year conflict in South Ossetia.

However, South Ossetian separatists strongly deny that any resolution is possible involving Sanakoyev, who once acted as defense minister and prime minister for the breakaway region. According to Irina Gagloyeva, head of the South Ossetian Information and Press Committee, any move on the European Commission's part to recognize Sanakoyev -- or allow him to participate in the peace process -- indicates European democracy is 'in crisis.'"

In a telephone interview with EurasiaNet, Gagloyeva noted that it is "unfortunate" that the Tskhinvali-based leader, Kokoity, was also not given an "equal" opportunity to address EU officials on the conflict.

Georgian analysts like Dr. Archil Gegeshidze, a senior fellow at the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies, believe that Sanakoyev's audience with EU parliamentarians is one step closer to international recognition for South Ossetia's Georgian-aligned government. "Logically, the process really goes to the outcome that the international community at large and the European Union in particular recognize the temporary administrative unit in South Ossetia and Mr. Sanakoyev as the head of this administration," Gegeshidze said. The speech, he added, "could serve as an opening for other European institutions like the EU and the OSCE [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe]."

In a June 25 interview with Imedi TV, Davit Bakradze, chairman of the Georgian parliamentary committee for Euro-Atlantic integration, told viewers that "[o]ur main task is to initiate relations between the [Sanakoyev] administration and, in this case, the European Parliament and the EU's relevant structures."

That task has already registered notice. Georgian officials were not available to explain who invited Sanakoyev to address European parliamentarians, but one researcher in Brussels characterized the visit as an attempt by "Tbilisi and the embassy here" to "push [Sanakoyev] on the map for the moment."

Unlike Gegeshidze, however, Michael Emerson, associate senior research fellow at the Center for European Policy Studies in Brussels where the South Ossetian leader was scheduled to speak Tuesday afternoon, said that he doubted that Sanakoyev's appearance before parliament was a step toward European recognition of his "alternative" government. "The Sanakoyev initiative is worth developing carefully as part of the process," Emerson said, "but it's hard to say where it leads."

Editor's Note: Molly Corso is a freelance reporter and photojournalist based in Tbilisi.

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