Georgia is seeking the support of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to alter the format for the South Ossetian peace process.
Georgia's State Minister for Reintegration Temur Iakobashvili outlined Tbilisi's proposed changes during talks on March 11 with OSCE Secretary-General Marc Perrin de Brichambaut and other organization officials. Since the conclusion of the 1992 Dagomys ceasefire agreement, the focal point of the peace process has been the Joint Control Commission (JCC), a quadripartite body comprising representatives of Georgia, Russia, South Ossetia, and the Russian republic of North Ossetia. Each side has the rank of a co-chair in the commission and maintains an equal number of peacekeepers in the conflict zone. The OSCE participates in the JCC as an observer.
In addition to monitoring the implementation of the ceasefire, the JCC coordinates the activities of the joint peacekeeping force, drafts demilitarization and other confidence-building measures in the conflict zone, and oversees economic reconstruction projects. The JCC functioned relatively well until the summer of 2004, when Georgian special police forces moved into South Ossetia, officially to put an end to smuggling activities there. Since then peace talks have been stalled. In 2007, the JCC co-chairs held only one, inconclusive plenary meeting in Tbilisi. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has long sought a change to the peace process, preferring that the OSCE, the European Union or the United States replace Russia as the primary peace broker. Officials in Tbilisi complain that Moscow is more interested in maintaining disunity, rather than promoting Georgian-Ossetian reconciliation. In addition, Georgian officials say the current negotiation framework is a Moscow-dominated, "three-against-one" arrangement that hampers the ability to reach a lasting peace settlement.
Georgia's proposed new peace format has been dubbed "2+2+2." On February 29, Iakobashvili broadly outlined the formula during a parliamentary hearing in Tbilisi: he said the new arrangement would pair Georgia and the Provisional Administration of South Ossetia -- a loyalist body that Saakashvili's administration helped create in 2007. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. That tandem would be counterbalanced by Russia and the South Ossetian separatist leadership. The third tandem would comprise the OSCE and the EU. "If our proposal is not supported, we will no longer work under the JCC format," Iakobashvili told Georgian MPs.
Moscow and Tskhinvali have both rejected the Georgian proposal. South Ossetia's separatist president Eduard Kokoity has accused Georgia of seeking to torpedo the peace process with its new initiative. Russia's JCC co-chair Yuri Popov has said that Moscow currently does not see any alternative to the current negotiation framework, adding that Georgia cannot withdraw from the JCC without renouncing the Dagomys agreement.
There has been no official word from the EU on the Georgian proposal. The 25-member bloc has a presence in South Ossetia through the Economic Rehabilitation Program (ERP), of which it is the largest donor. But EU capitals are divided over further involvement in the region. Countries traditionally more supportive of Georgia -- such as the Baltic states and Poland -- would reportedly not object to becoming part of the negotiation framework, while others are much more cautious.
The OSCE has not officially commented on the Georgian initiative either. Privately, OSCE officials say they have reservations about Tbilisi's plan. One official told EurasiaNet on condition of anonymity that he believed one major problem with the Georgian proposal is that it leaves North Ossetia out of the negotiation process. "So long as you take new sides in, it's alright. It's when you begin taking sides out that it becomes a problem," he said.
Georgia's insistence on granting its Provisional Administration of South Ossetia a fully-fledged role in the peace process may create additional problems. Moscow and Tskhinvali deny that the Provisional Administration and its head, former separatist defense minister Dmitri Sanakoyev, are legitimate parties to the peace process. They claim Sanakoyev's administration is an artificial creation, manipulated by the Georgian government. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Russia had previously indicated it could put up with Sanakoyev's presence within the JCC, but only if he or his representatives were part of the Georgian delegation. "We have repeatedly said that we do not consider Sanakoyev a side in the conflict and, naturally, that we do not consider him a side in the negotiation process," Popov said on March 6 after meeting with Iakobashvili in Tbilisi. In Popov's words, granting Sanakoyev a separate seat at the JCC would "automatically" prompt the separatist leadership to leave the negotiation table, thus making the whole peace process "meaningless."
Georgia's new stance does not necessarily mean that the JCC mechanism is over. Although he had earlier said he did not believe it would be "expedient" for Tbilisi to resume work within the JCC framework, Iakobashvili reportedly indicated during the meetings he had in Vienna that his country is not willing to repudiate the commission as a whole. He, in particular, stressed that certain aspects of its activities, including the economic rehabilitation of South Ossetia, should be preserved.
Also, Russia's envoy Popov told reporters in Tbilisi on March 6 that, despite disagreements on certain aspects of the negotiation process, Moscow and Tbilisi were willing to continue working together.
That same day, North Ossetia's JCC co-chair, Murat Tkhostov, expressed hope that Georgia will not withdraw from the existing peace framework. "If this mechanism is destroyed, or stops functioning, the situation may become difficult to control," he cautioned.
Despite such concerns, some observers believe modifications must be made to the existing peace negotiation format. In a report published last year, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group think tank said that "unless formats are changed to reflect Georgia's perceived need for a mechanism in which its interests and security fears are considered equally, it is unlikely to engage in genuine dialogue and confidence building."
Jean-Christophe Peuch is a Vienna-based freelance correspondent, who specializes in Caucasus- and Central Asia-related developments.