West key irritant in Georgia conflict

On Friday, Georgia launched an attack on its autonomous republic of South Ossetia in an apparent bid to remove a separatist government and reincorporate the region into Georgia. Russia responded with air strikes and reportedly casualties within the main South Ossetian city of Tskhinvali have been heavy. How did this crisis develop and what are the possible solutions to it?

South Ossetia is a small mountainous region occupied mainly by Ossetians (about 65 per cent) and Georgians (about 30 per cent). To the north lies North Ossetia, an autonomous republic within the Russian Federation. Many South Ossetians wish to reunite with their northern compatriots. In 1992, they held a referendum in support of independence, which was supported by a large majority. However, the international community did not recognize the results.

In 2003, after what was termed the "Rose Revolution," Mikheil Saakashvili was elected Georgian president and took office in January 2004. He made it clear his priorities were NATO and EU membership as well as renewed negotiations with de facto independent regimes in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. He received encouragement from the United States, which recognizes the territorial integrity of Georgia, as well as from NATO, which has indicated that Georgia will soon be accepted as a member.

These developments incensed Russia, which regards the area as a vital part of its sphere of interest. After the 1992 conflict, Russia sent several hundred peacekeepers into South Ossetia. It also offered Russian passports to ethnic Ossetians for their own protection, and about half of South Ossetian residents are now officially Russian citizens. Georgia claims that Russian planes have frequently violated Ossetian airspace and that Russia's goal is the outright incorporation of South Ossetia and its reunion with the northern territory.

In 2006, South Ossetia once again held a referendum, which again voted overwhelmingly for independence. Although international observers were present to monitor the vote, and it was reported that 99 per cent of South Ossetians supported the motion, Georgians were disenfranchised. Therefore, the UN and EU did not recognize it as valid. The Western powers also maintained that any referendum required the consent of the Georgian government in Tblisi, the rightful ruler of the territory.

Today there are effectively two governments in South Ossetia: an unrecognized de facto separatist government based in Tskhinvali under Eduard Kokoiti, 44, a former wrestling champion, and an alternative pro-Georgian Provisional Government of South Ossetia that is led by Ossetian Dmitri Sanakoev, aged 39, formerly an officer in the Soviet army. Sanakoev was inaugurated as "president" in a village several kilometers to the north-east of Tskhinvali on Dec. 1, 2006.

Koikoiti wishes to unite the two Ossetias under the umbrella of Russia. Sanakoev's government derives from another 2006 referendum held among the Georgian and Ossetian population, organized by the "Salvation Union of South Ossetia." He has received encouragement from the U.S. and has presented a speech in Brussels to EU and Georgian parliamentary officials. However, his election according to most accounts was not democratic, and he enjoyed a near total monopoly of the Georgian media. Moreover, it seems inconceivable that a lasting solution to the Ossetian question can be found without reflecting the wishes of the titular population.

Although South Ossetia has a population of only about 70,000 and few major resources--it is mainly mountainous--the conflict that broke out on Aug. 8 could develop into a major international problem. Georgia's sudden assault on Tskhinvali represents an attempt to resolve an intractable issue by force. Russia, in turn, responded with air strikes on the grounds that several of its peacekeepers died during the invasion.

In the earlier 1991-92 conflict there were many examples of "ethnic cleansing." Thousands of Ossetians fled into Russia, and over 20,000 Georgians moved into Georgia proper. Though the two peoples have also enjoyed long periods of peaceful cohabitation and have intermarried extensively, there is a danger that ethnic conflict could now develop in full. Moreover, the Russian Caucasus is already volatile because of the continuing war in Chechnya as well as violence in Daghestan and Ingushetia.

Neither the Western nor Russian attitudes to the issue seem particularly helpful. The West was quick to recognize Kosovo, essentially a second Albanian state in Europe that declared unilateral independence, but seems reticent about South Ossetia, which has expressed a similar wish. Some analysts perceive the conflict as originating with and exacerbated by Russia, and there are numerous citations of Russian violations of Georgian airspace. The circulation of the Russian ruble in South Ossetia is perceived as a symbol of Russia's intentions.

However, there should be some room for manoeuvring between the major powers if they wish to resolve the dispute peacefully. Russia is unwilling to become involved in a major military conflict despite its support for South Ossetian separatism. Georgia cannot continue to occupy a region that has expressed a clear desire for independence.

Though Russia responded with unwarranted violence, it is the West and its new ally Georgia that needs to find a compromise solution. Georgia's territorial integrity--notwithstanding Russian pressure--is no longer viable within its current territory, if indeed it ever was. Saakashvili bears responsibility for the sudden invasion, carried out at a time when world leaders are focused on the Olympic Games in Beijing. Georgian control over its wayward province cannot be established without bloodshed.

[Source: By David Marples, The Edmonton Journal, Canada, 09Aug08. David Marples is professor of history at the University of Alberta and director of the Stasiuk Program on Contemporary Ukraine at the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies.]

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The Question of South Ossetia
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