Against the backdrop of warming Georgian-Russian relations, South Ossetian leaders are struggling to resist the pressure being exerted on the separatist region by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. Many observers in Tbilisi believe that popular support for South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoyev is shaky.
Georgian officials are maintaining political and economic pressure on South Ossetia, continuing to operate checkpoints that are designed to eliminate illicit trade between the region and Georgia proper. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Tbilisi is also beefing up its contingent in a joint peacekeeping force. At the same time, Georgian authorities are extending economic benefits to regional residents, including the distribution of free fertilizer.
From Tbilisi's vantage point, many of Kokoyev's recent counter-moves seem driven by fear that his hold on power in the region is slipping. On June 6, for example, the Rustavi-2 television channel reported that South Ossetian authorities had arrested a long-time political antagonist of Kokoyev's, Kostya Dzugayev, on charges of "collaborating with the Georgians." Dzugayev had served as the chief of South Ossetia's legislature during the tenure of Lyudvig Chibirov, Kokoyev's predecessor. South Ossetian officials also have tried to disrupt Saakashvili's plan to reopen a direct rail link between Tbilisi and Tskhinvali, the regional capital.
After taking over from Chibirov in December 2001, Kokoyev moved quickly to consolidate his political authority. The results of local legislative elections May 23 left Kokoyev with control of both the executive and legislative branches of government in the region. Yet, the absence of strong political opposition to the Kokoyev in South Ossetia does not mean his administration enjoys overwhelming popular support. Saakashvili recognizes this and is trying to take advantage of it.
Saakashvili has shown both during the Rose Revolution last November, and, more recently, in Ajaria that he possesses an unmatched ability to connect directly with people. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. This trait has enabled him to encourage mass protests that have driven his political antagonists first Eduard Shevardnadze, then Aslan Abashidze from power. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. In South Ossetia's case, Saakashvili is pursuing a different course: rather than stirring protest, he is seeking to provide incentives for Ossetians to again accept Tbilisi's authority.
Saakashvili has sought to reassure regional residents that their rights would be protected in the event of South Ossetia's reintegration into Georgia. Beyond the extension of economic incentives, he has used the term "South Ossetia" in public statements. In recent years, Georgian authorities have referred to South Ossetia as the "Tskhinvali Region" in a non-so-subtle attempt to downplay the territory's sovereignty aspirations. Saakashvili's rhetorical shift is significant, some observers believe, because it serves as tacit recognition of the region's autonomous character.
In trying to drive a wedge between Kokoyev and South Ossetia's residents, Saakashvili is helped by the fact that the region is economically dependent on trade, much of it of the black-market variety, with Georgia. Georgia's imposition of checkpoints to control trade, thus, has a potentially devastating impact on Kokoyev's ability to maintain power.
South Ossetia established de facto independence from Tbilisi after Georgian authorities tried to squelch the region's autonomous status. Approximately 1,000 people were killed and 60,000 were displaced during the separatist struggle, which ended after the signing of a peace deal in 1992. A joint force, incorporating Georgian, Russian and South Ossetian troops, is charged with maintaining the peace.
In marked contrast to the civil war in Georgia's other separatist-minded region, Abkhazia, the Tbilisi-Tskhinvali relationship never experienced a total breakdown. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive] Road connections between South Ossetia and Georgia proper, for example, were restored relatively soon after the fighting stopped. Ossetia fast emerged as a conduit for goods flowing between Russian and Georgia. The Ergneti Market, located in the Georgian-Ossetian demilitarized zone, reportedly now accounts for up to 30 percent of the petrol and flour appearing on the Georgian market. Criminal groups control much of the trade, which generates virtually no tax revenue for either Georgia or Russia.
In 2000, Georgia and South Ossetia appeared close to settling their political differences, formulating an "intermediary document" that provided for joint law-enforcement activities, repatriation, property restitution and the harmonization of legislation. However, the plan ran up against the entrenched interests of criminal groups involved in illicit trade. The process ultimately stalled, breaking down altogether after Kokoyev, a Russian citizen with alleged links to illicit trade operations, took charge.
Kokoyev's ability to withstand Tbilisi's pressure, to a great extent, will depend on Russia's level of support for his authority. So far, it remains uncertain how far Russia is prepared to go in support of the South Ossetian leader. The Russian Foreign Ministry reacted sharply when the Georgian government sent Interior Ministry troops to reinforce its checkpoints on June 1. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. At the same time, Saakashvili's appears to have succeeded in forging a viable working relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Some Georgian political analysts say the recent appointment of Kakha Bendukidze as Georgian Economics Minister may have been part of a Saakashvili-Putin deal, in which Moscow takes a restrained approach on the issue of South Ossetia in return for Tbilisi's recognition of Moscow's economic interests in Georgia. Russian officials have hailed Bendukidze's appointment, saying it should encourage the expansion of Georgian-Russian trade. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].