The Georgian government is trying to generate momentum for its South Ossetia peace plan. Tbilisi's blueprint for the renegade region's reintegration currently enjoys strong support from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. However, South Ossetian leaders continue to give Tbilisi a cold shoulder.
President Mikheil Saakashvili's administration sponsored a July 10-11 conference in the port city of Batumi to promote the peace plan. Although South Ossetia's separatist leaders declined to participate, Georgian government officials and international observers expressed hope that the peace proposal could gain traction.
In his opening remarks at the conference, Saakashvili characterized the peace plan as a "dream list" for residents of South Ossetia, and called for active international involvement in the plan's implementation. "We understand it will take years," Saakashvili said. "But we want action. Nothing ever happens on its own, so we need your assistance." The plan, originally presented at the Council of Europe in January 2005, offers Tskhinvali broad autonomy and a variety of benefits and incentives. [For additional information click here]. The plan's provisions would:
Ensure language rights and the preservation of cultural heritage. Provide compensation for damages suffered during the 1990-1992 conflict with Georgia. Create a truth commission to investigate alleged crimes against civilians. Establish "a simplified border regime" for South Ossetians residing along the border with Russia. Guarantee South Ossetian representation in the central Georgian government.
The peace plan's wide range of programs helped secure OSCE support, said Roy Reeve, the OSCE's chief of mission in Georgia. "[It] presents the kind of complex approach that we at the OSCE do support and have been urging," Reeve told conference attendees. "Now we need to put flesh on the seams."
Nonetheless, serious obstacles remain, Reeve added. "It is fair to say that following the events of last summer, we are still confronted with a very tense situation," he said.
In July 2004, the Georgian government sent police into South Ossetia to crack down on the widespread smuggling activities that provided the bulk of the breakaway region's economy and posed an ongoing concern for neighboring Georgian regions. However, the anti-corruption mission quickly escalated into fighting between Georgian and Ossetian troops. According to official statistics, 16 Georgians were killed along with an unknown number of Ossetians. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Although Saakashvili withdrew Georgian troops last August, some experts say the police action caused lasting damage to Georgia-South Ossetian relations. The absence of South Ossetian government representatives at the Batumi conference suggests separatist leaders in Tskhinvali still do not believe that Tbilisi is firmly committed to peace. In late June, South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoiti declared that South Ossetian officials would not attend the conference, describing it as "a regular PR event for [Georgia's] Western sponsors," the Russian news agency RIA-Novosti reported.
In remarks broadcast on Georgian television, Saakashvili blamed Moscow for blocking South Ossetia's attendance. Russian government representatives also did not attend. Meanwhile, the South Ossetian government has charged that Tbilisi never sent them an official invitation.
Some conference attendees put the lack of an official South Ossetian delegation down to timing. "I would have been happy if that plan [the Saakashvili peace proposal] would have been presented last year," said Maia Tsobashvili, chairwoman of IBER-IRON Georgian-Ossetian Union, a conflict resolution NGO. "We have to earn their trust. ... If we take peaceful steps all of the time, then today's conference is a good beginning."
But Giorgi Khaindrava, the Georgian state minister for conflict resolution, shrugged off those concerns. "I don't think that [it] is a bad indicator that [no one is here from South Ossetia leadership] because I know that they were barred from participating," Khaindrava told EurasiaNet. "I know I am often in the region and I know that the people want it [peace] and are waiting for it."
Georgian-South Ossetian relations have been far from peaceful in recent months. Shootings in late May, for example, resulted in the deaths of four South Ossetian soldiers and one Georgian policeman. On July 5, 500 South Ossetian troops staged military maneuvers in the Java District, according to announcement made by Tskhinvali. Such an exercise seemed sure to antagonize Tbilisi. Georgian officials, meanwhile, have accused Russia of providing covert military aid including tents, field kitchens, uniforms and vehicles under the guise of supposedly humanitarian assistance. The Russian Foreign Ministry has denied such claim.
Reestablishing Georgia's territorial integrity is a top priority for the Saakashvili administration. "The status quo cannot continue. I am not going to wait for the next 100 years to resolve these problems," Imedi TV reported Saakashvili as saying on July 9. "Therefore, we will be very aggressive in seeking peace."
The Georgian government has lobbied the Bush administration and international organizations, including the OSCE to encourage Russia, a supporter of the separatist leaderships in both South Ossetia and the breakaway Black Sea region of Abkhazia, to support the peace process. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Russia and Georgia have long had a contentious relationship, but a recent deal covering the withdrawal of Russian troops from two Georgian military bases has raised hopes for a broader rapprochement. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Rather than counting on Russian support, representatives of South Ossetian non-governmental organizations, along with various political analysts, contend that Tbilisi should concentrate on economic development initiatives. The Georgian peace plan, several conference speakers said, would enjoy a greater chance of success if it concentrated on addressing the basic needs of the population, such as the provision of essential agricultural equipment and related infrastructure improvements.
"In my village they were planting cabbage and watering it with glasses of water," said Teimuraz Gazzaev, an economist and a representative for South Ossetian internally displaced persons. "If some tractors or combines are delivered, you will see results."
The Saakashvili proposal states that "the Georgian government will guarantee the economic rehabilitation of South Ossetia and will dedicate from the State budget funding for the rehabilitation of critical infrastructure." Under the plan, local officials would be responsible for establishing economic policies. A special economic zone has also been proposed. "It will be good if it all happens," Gazzaev commented. "Poverty is at the heart of our hardships."
Some international organizations agree. "I do think that the economic side has already demonstrated that you can begin a dialogue," Lance Clark, resident representative in Georgia for the United Nations Development Program, told EurasiaNet. "It is like the work that is done between NGOs and grass roots groups: that doesn't solve the problems, but it certainly creates the grounds [for dialogue]."
Saakashvili seems eager to engage in direct talks with South Ossetian leaders, stating in a July 10 interview; "[i]f the de-facto leaders of Ossetia love Ossetians even a tenth as much as we do, they will certainly engage in negotiations." So far, however, Tskhinvali has given no indication that it is willing to parley. "Our train left Georgia 15 years ago," the Interfax news agency quoted Dmitri Medoyev, South Ossetia's representative to Russia, as saying in a July 10 interview. "And [it] is now heading towards Russia."
Molly Corso is a freelance photographer and reporter based in Tbilisi.