A recent purge of South Ossetia's leadership creates new opportunities and challenges for Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze's administration, as Tbilisi tries to reach a political settlement with the renegade region.
Eduard Kokoyev, self-styled president of South Ossetia, sacked his top military and security aides on July 1, tightening his grip over the region's political hierarchy. He also dissolved special units of the region's defense and security bodies. The power play, which occurred as Kokoyev returned from a visit to Moscow, knocked the Tedeyev family from its influential position in South Ossetia's leadership. Former Security Council Secretary Albert Tedeyev, along with his bother, Jambulat, had helped Kokoyev climb to power in 2001. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Since 1992, when a ceasefire ended an armed separatist struggle, South Ossetia has functioned as a de facto no-man's-land between Georgia and Russia, and a haven for smugglers. By exerting influence over police and defense forces, as well as over customs agents, the Tedeyev family allegedly controlled a large share of black-market profits. [For background, see Eurasia Insight Archives]. Kokoyev has told local newspapers that a major factor in prompting his personnel changes was a need to improve the "insufficiently effective fight against crime" by rooting out "links between some of the officials and criminals."
A top Kokoyev aide, Murad Jioyev, said the Tedeyevs lost their jobs so that the government could become more efficient. Such statements have led some observers to suspect that Kokoyev acted to preempt a possible coup. Georgian sources also claimed that police loyal to Kokoyev had engaged in fighting with other security and defense ministry units, although South Ossetia authorities have denied this.
A businessman and a Russian citizen, Kokoyev won election in November 2001, though Georgian authorities and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (www.osce.org) deemed the vote illegal. Until the July 1 purge, Kokoyev's hold on power had been viewed as tenuous. Not only did he have to contend with the Tedeyevs, Kokoyev also had to deal with challenges to his authority from former president Lyudvig Chibirov and parliament leader Stanislav Kochiev.
The arrival in Georgia of American military trainers in 2002 may have played a role in the purge. Georgian officials at that time accused South Ossetian leaders of harboring Chechen rebels and of engaging in criminal activities. Kokoyev, in turn, expressed fear that Shevardnadze's government might attempt to reestablish its authority over South Ossetia by force, under the guise of a crackdown on terror and smuggling. [For background, see the Eurasia Insight Archive].
After the July 1 purge, Kokoyev indicated that he would be amenable to a fresh dialogue with officials in Tbilisi. He told journalists that "we have to work with the Georgian side." Such comments prompted Georgia's interior minister, Koba Narchemashvili, to praise South Ossetia's new dedication to law and order and to express hope for closer cooperation.
The ouster of the Tedeyevs, if it really weakens their control over smuggling activities, may indeed help foster fresh efforts at political negotiations with Georgian officials. Analysts have suggested that officials on both sides who have benefited from smuggling pose one of the major obstacles to a normalization of relations. Unlike Abkhazia, Georgia's other separatist-minded region, South Ossetia had experienced relative peace following the 1992 ceasefire. Economic contacts between South Ossetia and Georgia had gradually improved and overland communication is open.
However, it is far from clear whether Kokoyev's increased political strength will contribute to improved cooperation with Georgian leaders. Some early indicators point in the opposite direction. Indeed, Kokoyev made headlines with a July 4 request for South Ossetia's annexation to Russia. Russian officials immediately dismissed the request. An aide to Russian President Vladimir Putin told the Itar-Tass news agency July 7 that the request "goes beyond the framework of the Georgian constitution and is therefore not legitimate and will not be considered."
Jaba Devdariani is a founding director of the United Nations Association of Georgia (www.una.org.ge) and Research Director of its program for applied research.