OCHA Georgia: South Ossetia Briefing Note Apr 2003

from UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
Published on 30 Apr 2003
  • Efforts towards peaceful conflict resolution continue despite setbacks

  • Low number of ethnic Ossetian returnees recorded

  • South Ossetia requires much more attention by international community in view of its humanitarian and basic rehabilitation needs

The South Ossetian Autonomous Oblast consisted of the four districts of Tskhinvali, Akhalgori (formerly Leningori), Java, and Znauri. Tskhinvali, the capital of the Oblast, is a half hour's drive north of Gori, the administrative centre of the Georgian region of Shida Kartli. In 1989, the Supreme Soviet of the Oblast declared its intention to raise its status to that of an Autonomous Republic within Georgia. The Georgian authorities annulled this decision and further revoked South Ossetia's status as an Autonomous Oblast. A violent conflict ensued during 1989-1992.

As a direct consequence of the Georgian-Ossetian conflict, South Ossetia and adjoining regions of Georgia proper, including Gori, suffered substantial material damage, and over 60,000 individuals, mainly ethnic Ossetians, were displaced from their homes. Some 40,000 of them crossed into North Ossetia in the Russian Federation and became refugees. At the same time as the conflict raged, several violent earthquakes and aftershocks struck the region, causing significant damage, particularly in Java.

As early as the summer of 1992, an attempt was made to seek an amicable solution to the conflict and to establish an end to the hostilities. A cease-fire agreement was signed, leaving the authorities of the former Oblast in control of Tskhinvali, Java, Znauri and parts of Akhalgori, and the central Government in control of Akhalgori and several isolated ethnic Georgian villages. A peacekeeping force from the region was deployed. These forces consist of joint Russian, Ossetian and Georgian troops and are known as the Joint Peacekeeping Force or JPKF.

In 1992, a mission from the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), later renamed as the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), was requested by the Georgian and South Ossetian sides to help mediate and promote a peaceful resolution to the conflict. With the OSCE's facilitation, the Georgian-Ossetian conflict settlement machinery has evolved. This machinery has two principal components: political negotiations of Georgian and South Ossetian plenipotentiary delegations with the participation of Russia, North Ossetian authorities, and the OSCE; and the Joint Control Commission (JCC), which supports confidence-building measures and serves as a mechanism for the sides to address issues of mutual concern while leaving the issue of the region's political status to the political negotiators.

The JCC has three principal working groups: 1) On Military and Security Issues; 2) On Economic Issues; 3) On Refugees and IDPs. All four parties (i.e. Georgia, Russia, North Ossetia and South Ossetia) and the OSCE are represented on the JCC Working Groups. In addition, the JPKF is a participant on the working group on Military and Security Issues, the European Commission (EC) on the working group on economic issues, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) on the working group on refugees and IDPs.

During the early phases of the conflict, international humanitarian agencies addressed the emergency needs of the population. Later, during 1996-1999, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) addressed confidence building and development needs through a US$2 million project designed to rehabilitate essential components of the region's infrastructure. The UNDP project relied on an innovative system of joint technical groups with representatives from the Georgian and South Ossetian sides that identified and approved projects by consensus. Similarly, in 1998, the European Union (EU) issued a budget line to facilitate the normalisation of relations between the two sides and has allocated several million ECU for the rehabilitation of the region's infrastructure, including electricity and gas distribution networks and the railway line. Notwithstanding the achievements of the EU and UNDP programmes, much need for rehabilitation and development work remains.

In 1997, in light of progress on the political front and further reductions in tension and a steady improvement in the security environment, UNHCR began programming designed to create conditions for the return of IDPs and refugees to the region. As of December 2001, UNHCR has facilitated return and provided assistance to over 1,300 families (some 6,350 persons). However, an overwhelming number of IDPs and returnees remain displaced. Vigorous efforts by UNHCR and its implementing partners to promote a voluntary, safe, and dignified return of refugees and IDPs to their places of origin have had only limited results. Until economic conditions improve and basic services such as healthcare and utilities are adequately restored, and the number and potential for income generating opportunities is sufficiently increased, many if not most refugees and IDPs will remain reluctant to return to their places of origin.

In November 2001, local presidential elections, unrecognised by the international community, were held in South Ossetia. This resulted in the defeat of the incumbent and a relatively peaceful transfer of power to the new de facto President and administration. At present, the central authorities in Tbilisi continue to exercise little direct control over the region. Despite the South Ossetian authorities' declaration of independence from Georgia in 1990, the region's status continues to be the focus of negotiations, and the international community remains firmly committed to Georgia's territorial integrity. The separation of the negotiations on political status from other issues under the auspices of the JCC allows the sides to maintain a level of pragmatism to continue to resolve issues of mutual concern.

Pragmatism is also evidenced in the attitude of the local populations residing on each side of the "cease-fire line." Much of the adult population speaks Ossetian, Georgian and Russian to varying degrees of proficiency, a sign of the close interethnic ties that prevailed throughout the region prior to the conflict. The local population on both sides enjoys freedom of movement across the lines of de facto South Ossetian-Georgian control. The freedom of movement refers to both ethnic Georgian enclaves under de facto South Ossetian administration and the population from South Ossetia and Georgia proper in general. A regular bus service operates between Tskhinvali and Gori. Georgian villagers bring their produce to the Tskhinvali market, and transactions take place in a variety of currencies, including the Russian ruble, US dollar and Georgian lari, although the economy is based primarily on the ruble.

In early 2002, and later in Autumn 2002, there were some negative developments in political talks and security repercussions on the ground. This to a certain extent impeded the peace-settlement process, which suffered along with the authority of the JCC being questioned. At the same time, the level of criminality, an acute problem in South Ossetia, has been intermittently on the rise. However, despite those passing tensions, the Georgian-South Ossetian conflict settlement process continued. The momentum in the Georgian-Ossetian negotiations was reflected in seven meetings held within the framework of the JCC in 2002. As a result, agreements were reached on important issues related to urgent security matters, economic rehabilitation, and IDPs/refugees. Moreover, the finalisation of the Russian-Georgian Intergovernmental Programmes on Economic Rehabilitation in the Zone of Conflict in December 2001 and working on the draft law on Return, Integration and Re-integration of Refugees and IDPs would be conducive to further deepening of confidence and rehabilitation between the two sides.

On economic issues, the sides shared the view that rehabilitation in the zone of conflict played a growing role in the overall conflict settlement process. In November 2002, they expressed their readiness to participate in the EU joint Customs Control project, a joint taxation scheme on transit cargo traffic through South Ossetia the proceeds of which would be beneficial for the population in the zone of conflict. This, and other economic rehabilitation projects funded by the EU, were to be implemented and administered under the aegis of the OSCE through its field office in Tskhinvali. In exchange for agreement on joint taxation scheme, the EU would go ahead with the 2.5 million Euro in rehabilitation funds (1999 budget), mainly foreseen for road rehabilitation. However, de facto South Ossetian authorities reiterated they would not make any concessions, i.e. accept conditionalities, which would impede the sovereignty of the territory. The negotiations over these projects are still underway and were to be the focal point of forthcoming JCC meeting scheduled for mid-May 2003.

From 26 to 29 October 2002, the 8th Experts' Groups meeting on political issues was held in Castelo Branco, Portugal (following similar meetings in Vienna in 2000 and Bucharest in 2001), hosted by the Portuguese OSCE Chairman-in-Office, in a positive and constructive atmosphere. This in itself is noteworthy, in light of the tension on the ground in September-October 2002. All sides acknowledged the role of the previous experts meetings and in particular that the so-called Intermediary Document on the basic principles of political and legal relations between the sides in the Georgian-Ossetian conflict will constitute the basis for the negotiations, thus ensuring the continuity in the peace settlement process.

OSCE in 2003 has continued to work towards peaceful settlement of the Georgian-Ossetian conflict, through facilitation of the JCC meetings and its subsidiary bodies. At the present juncture, the Mission is stepping up its activities aimed at facilitating the two sides to implement the OSCE Mission's proposals, which have also a strong confidence building effect, on the release of a JCC newsletter and the enhancement of the operational efficiency of the Special Co-ordination Centre, that is joint policing activities. OSCE is also exploring the possibilities to enhance its efforts in the field confidence building with a view of contributing to an atmosphere of trust and positive examples of co-operation. This, in turn, could be instrumental in bridging the gap between the two sides and facilitating JCC activities.


The security situation, from a military point of view, remains in general calm and quiet. OSCE continued its monitoring of the JPKF in the Georgian-Ossetian zone of conflict, with an emphasis on transparency of their activities and co-operation among the sides. The JPFK monitors the ceasefire and also maintains a rapid reaction force, which has proved itself capable of responding quickly to threats to the peace and defusing tense situations in the past. Occasionally, however, there have been some indications that the JPKF has been under some strain due to an unclear chain of command and other signs of lack of cooperation and competence within the JPKF. Such developments may have serious adverse impact on the stability in the region.

The Georgian and South Ossetian sides have over recent years achieved substantial agreements on joint action against criminality. A Joint Law Enforcement Coordination Body was formed in February 2000 with the JPKF, with participation of South Ossetian and local Georgian law enforcement authorities. In February 2002, the EU donated communication equipment and vehicles to the Joint Georgian-South Ossetian law enforcement unit, the "Special Coordination Centre" (SCC), which is subordinated to the JCC. To address some of the shortcomings of the SCC, OSCE has urged the two sides to agree on concrete measures to improve the efficiency of the SCC for addressing the growing criminality in the region.

Criminality remains an acute problem in South Ossetia, in part due to attempts to control the lucrative trade in "transit" goods shipped between the Russian Federation and Georgia proper via South Ossetia. Robberies are common in the region, especially car thefts. Casualties are often suspected to be related to business disputes. Law enforcement officers from both sides are at times involved in criminal activities. Furthermore, there have been cases of a kidnapping and assaults on officers in the zone of conflict. These incidents and unproductive investigations have provoked dissatisfaction among the local population. It has also become common that frustrated villagers block the major road for hours in protest. There have been constant concerns among the international community that the present trend of rampant crime and series of incidents could incite ethnic tension and violence. The "Falloy" market disputes are often of high importance in security matters. This is often combined with "legal actions", for instance, recently introduced "escort" fees by the South Ossetian de facto authorities and "Customs" fees by the Georgian authorities have caused further dissatisfaction among the population.

Although the security situation in general has been calm throughout 2002, it has significantly deteriorated in mid-summer 2002, along with heightened tensions between Russian Federation and Georgia, which culminated in the Russian President's ultimatum to Georgia to take action against "terrorists" or face Russian unilateral action. This was compounded with fear felt by the local authorities and population over hostile intentions by the Chechen boyevics who were allegedly seen in the vicinity of South Ossetian eastern "border," and the possibility of a Georgian "anti-criminal" operation in the area. Although no major incidents related to those issues was recorded, these events resulted in some genuine concerns by the population for their safety as well as in partial mobilisation of South Ossetian military reserves called upon by local authorities. By late October 2002, the tension about Chechens was somewhat defused, and the South Ossetian de facto authorities were then more concerned over the "anti-criminal" operation in South Ossetia (officially, Georgian authorities place this operation in "Shida Kartli"). The mobilisation of troops in South Ossetia was retained for some time mainly due to the fear of Georgians using this operation as a pretext to take South Ossetia by force. By year's end, the tensions over the above issues have abated, in parallel with positive developments in adjacent areas, which normally reflect on the situation in the zone of conflict.

From its start in 2000, the OSCE has supported the Joint Peacekeeping Forces' (JPKF) programme of voluntary hand-over of small arms and ammunition. The OSCE Mission to Georgia has given its support to the weapons collection programme by providing funding for projects that are directly related to the voluntary hand in of weapons. The types of projects implemented vary but they are generally directed at improving infrastructure and essential services in the region. The JPKF, in cooperation with the local authorities, has continued the campaign on the voluntary handover of illegally kept weapons. So far hundreds of small arms as well as munitions, grenades, landmines, and one 100mm gun have been collected. The OSCE is considering further plans to implement projects for the benefit of communities from the zone of conflict. In recent months, the OSCE has supervised several projects including the delivery of computers to a school in Tskhinvali; the repair of sections of two irrigation canals providing water for both Georgian and Ossetian villages; rehabilitation of a section of a road in the south-eastern part of the zone of conflict: this road will ease Ossetian villagers' access to the Georgian administrative centre in Gori. There are also plans for a bus route for this purpose.


During the time of the Soviet Union, the region was a relatively prosperous one. Its mines, factories, and farms supplied raw materials to markets across the Soviet Union, and the mountainous regions of Java were dotted with resorts and tourist bases. Since 1989, however, the collapse of the Soviet Union, compounded with effects of the ensuing civil war and the powerful earthquake that hit the region, all contributed to a grim economic climate. Poverty has become widespread across the region and by all accounts is growing.

The humanitarian situation in South Ossetia cannot be described as critical, but remains precarious and certainly requires more attention by international community. The Georgian-South Ossetian peace-process is practically in a deadlock, and the conflict in South Ossetia is at times described as a forgotten one. International aid has markedly decreased in recent years, while the humanitarian situation has actually slightly deteriorated, and some basic rehabilitation needs have grown. Local authorities have no external support to their budget for social security programmes and objectively cannot provide more than a minimal assistance to their own needy population. There is a widely-perceived need for continuing, and possibly increasing humanitarian aid, especially in the medical sector, as well as basic infrastructure rehabilitation in the fields of electricity, water, sanitation, etc.

There has been, for quite some time, a consensus amongst international humanitarian actors on the ground that properly designed transitional assistance programmes could spur confidence building, support and encourage return of IDPs/refugees, and promote rapprochement at the political level. It is, therefore, essential, to further raise awareness amongst donors to encourage appropriate assistance to the region. Throughout 2002 and 2003, the trend has, however, been quite the opposite. The deadlock in political negotiations, overall donor fatigue in a wider, regional frame, as well some misunderstandings between the local authorities and international NGOs, have resulted in complete closure of most international NGOs and a prolonged delay in implementation of planned projects by others. While OSCE supports a range of activities in South Ossetia, and UNHCR and WFP maintain their low-level presence, it is noteworthy to point out that there is only international NGO, i.e. ADRA, currently operational in the area and dealing with health matters relevant to humanitarian situation.

A large majority of South Ossetia's population lives on extremely low salaries or pensions. Some are involved in petty trade or the "transit" goods trade. Some have obtained the right of Russian pensions, which are considerably higher than the South Ossetian ones. Many working age people are economic migrants and increasingly emigrants to Russia, who then provide remittances that support their relatives. The majority of the population, however, survives on subsistence agriculture. Due to the gloomy overall socio-economic situation, unprecedented level of crime and related manifestations, such as increased drug addiction and suicide rates, have become a huge concern to all. Furthermore, South Ossetia faces demographic erosion as ever larger number of working-age people migrate, primarily to the Russian Federation, in search of better employment and income opportunities. Lack of income and employment opportunities is the central issue in addressing the dismal socio-economic situation in the region.

In the absence of adequate programmes to stimulate the economy, the local population, especially the most vulnerable groups, such as single elderly without family support, will remain dependent on humanitarian assistance, for which funding has been low and decreasing. It should be highlighted that the current situation is not conducive to potential returnees. The lack of potential for improvement in the immediate future is a crucial factor in the low number of returnees into South Ossetia, even for the Ossetian ethnic group. Due to the low level of return, UNHCR and its implementing partners have scaled down their presence in the region.

On February 11, OCHA convened a conference in Tbilisi on 2003 Humanitarian Situation and Strategy in Georgia to the Government and international assistance community. OCHA presented the Strategy document, which is meant to assist donor agencies and other international agencies in their strategic planning, fundraising, advocacy and other efforts on behalf of the population in need in the country. Among four prioritised areas, there was a panel group dealing specifically with the conflict zones, i.e. Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The prioritised panel group concluded that there is no humanitarian emergency in South Ossetia at present, as compared to the situation in early years following the armed conflict in early 1990s. However, the current level of humanitarian aid in South Ossetia is considered inadequate for the well-being of the most vulnerable segments of the population. The panel group's recommendations for South Ossetia (as for Abkhazia) were the following: review the humanitarian situation and address the existing gaps, especially in health sector; support, to a much larger extent, rehabilitation of basic infrastructure and private dwellings; increase income and employment generating activities; consider labour-bases infrastructure and community mobilisation projects; encourage support to psycho-socially oriented projects; provide further support to civil society and local NGO development. Upon the Conference, there has been very little of a noticeable more interest by the international community in considering support to various programmes in South Ossetia.


Food Security and Agriculture

There is no immediate danger of hunger and related diseases among the general population in South Ossetia. Nevertheless, the most vulnerable segments, such as the elderly, orphans, and families with many children, face serious food security problems due to their level of poverty. The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) provides food aid to beneficiaries residing in institutions, such as children in orphanages, as well as food aid for a soup kitchen for the most vulnerable persons such as disabled persons and single elderly dependent on institutional feeding. DFID supported a project in the village Prisi with a mixed Georgian-Ossetian population. The project aimed at income generation and improved food security for the village households through technical assistance and agricultural inputs supply for tomato and cabbage production and sale in Tskhinvali market.


The Adventist Development Relief Agency (ADRA) extended the primary health care initiative programme, which first started in November 2000, until August 2004. In the period June 2002 - April 2003, ADRA continued the programme trying to address the needs found in the last baseline study conducted by end-2002, which indicated that the incidence of chronic thyroid diseases such as goiter is endemic, the sanitary situation is very unsatisfactory, and that there is a high level of ignorance amongst the local population concerning Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs), particularly HIV/AIDS. Other activities during the period were the delivery of First Aid medicine and equipment to Tshkinvali nursing home, Tshkinvali state prison and to 24 medical points located in the villages of the PHCISO project. ADRA also participated in the celebration of World Health Day in a week of health talks and activities for the population of South Ossetia entitled "Growing Together". Other activities include IMCI Training for health care providers, Healthy Life Style discussions in Tshkinvali State University, publishing health related topics in the local newspaper, a monthly newsletter with health updates for the general population, round table discussions for Health Care Providers with updated information, basic English language and computer classes for Health Care Providers, free access to library and internet for Health Care providers, radio and television programs, formation of village councils and volunteer groups to empower the community so that they can begin to address their health problems, formation of mothers' group and other activities relevant to the project.


People in the region suffer from particularly harsh winters while gas and electricity supplies are insufficient to provide adequate heating. Thus, a large portion of the population relies on firewood and wood stoves, which has already caused large-scale deforestation. Furthermore, local authorities are unable to distribute sufficient quantities of firewood to address the needs of vulnerable segments of the population, such as the single elderly and those residing in collective centres. Those most at risk reside in urban areas and are unable to pay utility bills, purchase firewood on the market, or even to simply (illegally/free) cut woods. Firewood supply is considered to be a seasonal humanitarian priority for some segments of the population. Upon an appeal for supporting a firewood distribution project launched jointly by ADRA and OCHA to the international community in Autumn 2003, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) provided funding to ADRA to carry out the firewood and stove distribution project for South Ossetia. The project began in January 2003 during one of the worst winters in the region in the last 10 years. This project helped 250 families with firewood and 40 with stoves. The beneficiaries of the project were IDP's and others among the most vulnerable people. UNHCR also contributed to the heating emergency by delivering 33 wood-burning stoves to those ex-refugee and ex-IDP families who returned in the year 2002. In addition, 20 stoves have been provided to the evicted IDPs in Doghlauri. After a special request made by the local authorities in South Ossetia, UNHCR distributed firewood material among 125 most vulnerable IDP and returnee families, the allocation for each family being 2 cubic meters of firewood.

Human Rights and Confidence Building

OSCE has conducted regular human rights monitoring in the region. As a confidence building measure, OSCE facilitated activities designed to empower and build confidence among local media professionals (with the particular emphasis on female journalists) and their counterparts from Abkhaz, Georgian, and other south Caucasian media outlets and NGOs. Project activities included financing the publication of the South Ossetian women's journal "Amaga," engaging media workers in the Association of South Caucasian Journalists, as well as organising training workshops on topics such as role of journalists in post-conflict confidence-building, media as a business, writing about women's issues for the network of female journalists.

In collaboration with UNHCR, the United Nations Volunteers (UNV) produces and distributes copies of the interactive children's magazine "White Crane", distributed to children in schools and orphanages in Tskhinvali, Java, and Kurta. In October 2002, a local NGO "Journalists for Human Rights" conducted a training in human rights, society democratisation, and the role of United Nations for school-teachers, supported by the Embassy of the Netherlands in Georgia.

Civil Society Development and Peace-building

Within the framework of its regional project, "Women for Conflict Prevention and Peace-Building in the Southern Caucasus," the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) supports the capabilities of women to participate in the conflict resolution and peace-building process, and maintains that women have a strong commitment to the maintenance of a long-term peace in the Southern Caucasus. In support of the project objectives and in support of the UN SC Resolution 1325, six meetings were held in Tshkinvali and Tbilisi between Georgian and South Ossetian women within the framework of public diplomacy activities. These meetings provide a venue for women to strengthen their capacity to participate in decisions which affect their lives, present and future, at local, national and international levels. The workshops are conducted through NGO partners with the participants among NGO representatives, women's activists, mid-level officials and other interested individuals. These workshops are a part of a larger, regional programme, which builds the skills and confidence of women to be active participants in the conflict resolution and peace-processes. The need remains for further support in the areas of conflict resolution and peace-building. DFID and Soros Foundations have supported the publication of the newspaper "Third Sector." DFID has in 2002 and 2003 supported establishment of a resource centre for local NGOs.


In the frame of the ICRC education programme based on the Russian literature, a refresher course was carried out for secondary school teachers of Tshkinvali in October 2002.

Income Generation

The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) and the International Rescue Committee (IRC) had been implementing micro-lending programs in Gori and Tskhinvali. However, IRC closed its Gori office in January 2002 and Tskhinvali office in April 2002, while NRC closed its Tskhinvali office in July 2002. At present, no international organisation provides support to income-generating activities although there is a need for such programmes to be designed, to promote the development of a small business sector and spur job creation.

Psycho-social Rehabilitation

Among many priorities in South Ossetia, local NGOs and local authorities have reiterated the lack of psycho-social rehabilitation programmes designed

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