Georgia's South Ossetia conflict: Make haste slowly


Europe Report No. 183


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.


To All Sides (Georgian, South Ossetian, North Ossetian, Russian) in the Joint Control Commission:

1. Agree on changes to the negotiations format that emphasise direct Georgian-Ossetian dialogue and give the EU a role on a par with Russia and the OSCE.

2. Avoid inflammatory rhetoric.

3. Establish an OSCE/Joint Peacekeeping Forces observation point at Didi Gupta, agree on a mutually acceptable monitoring regime for the Roki tunnel and sign an agreement on non-use of force.

4. Set up joint policing, with an international civilian police component, including Russia, gradually scale down the JPKF operation and replace it in time with a flexible crisis response mechanism.

5. Further interethnic cooperation and confidence by implementing economic development and rehabilitation through the joint efforts of the OSCE-led Economic Rehabilitation Program (ERP), not competing unilateral projects.

To the Georgian and South Ossetian Sides:

6. Dismantle fortifications, clear mines, fill in trenches and remove all unauthorised equipment and personnel from the zone of conflict.

7. Allow unhampered JPKF and/or OSCE patrolling throughout the entire JPKF area of responsibility.

8. Remove unauthorised law enforcement posts from the zone of conflict.

9. Reestablish the Special Coordinating Centre for law enforcement and enhance its operational capacity; organise joint police training programs and regional police chief meetings; and launch joint police patrolling and a mechanism for joint criminal investigation.

To the Georgian Side:

10. Focus on restoring territorial integrity through gradual confidence building, not rapid status determination.

11. Engage in substantive dialogue with the Tskhinvali de facto authorities, while allowing ample time for Sanakoev to build credibility with South Ossetians.

12. Show respect for Ossetian self-determination aspirations and security fears; consider reconciliation strategies and a statement regretting past injustice.

13. Implement the Law on Property Restitution and Compensation.

14. Allocate economic rehabilitation assistance to OSCE-led programs in at least equal measure to unilateral programs.

To the Ossetian Side:

15. Build a pluralistic, open society and discuss amending negotiation and peacekeeping formats with Tbilisi.

To the Russian Federation:

16. Encourage Tskhinvali to be more open-minded on changes to the negotiation and peacekeeping formats.

17. Encourage both sides to implement verifiable demilitarisation measures.

18. Halt unilateral economic rehabilitation programs benefiting the Ossetian side alone.

To the Wider International Community:

19. Set up an informal consultative group (with at least the EU, U.S. and Russia) to assist the sides, including by developing new ideas, and commit new economic funding in the zone of conflict only for joint projects.

Tbilisi/Brussels, 7 June 2007