By Nicolas LANDRU in Tbilisi
Translated by Aaron FERRIS and Kathryn GAYLORD-MILES
© Tskhinvali - Nicolas Landru
“We have taken the first step towards the reunification of North and South Ossetia,” declared Eduard Kokoity, president of the unrecognized republic of South Ossetia, the day after two simultaneous elections in Tskhinvali. Officially, 52,030 people – 94.6% of voters – turned out, a record level of voter participation according to President Kokoity. 99% voted for the separatist republic of South Ossetia’s independence at the time of the referendum. 98% voted to re-elect the incumbent president. According to the Electoral Commission of Alternative Elections, 42,000 voters turned out for the elections held in the region’s territories under Georgian control. According to authorities in Tskhinvali, the voters numbered only 14,000. In the alternative presidential election, Dimitri Sanakoev, the favorite candidate from Tbilisi, took 88% of the votes. More than 90% of voters voted for a return by South Ossetia to Georgia by way of a federation.
These results are unsurprising and are in line with the results desired by the powers in place on each side. The candidates were elected outside of international law, as two powers in South Ossetia: one independent and pro-Russian, the other pro-Georgian. Kokoity reinforced his legitimacy with the election, during which a new political entity was erected by Tbilisi to counter his separatist regime. If the confrontation of the two legitimacies appeared at all, it was in the Monday morning press. Russian media are ignoring the alternative elections, while the Georgian press is hardly mentioning Tskhinvali’s results.
A vacuum of legitimacy weighs on the region of Tskhinvali. Following the 1990-91 conflict between Georgians and Ossetians, one part of the region is controlled by authorities from the separatist republic of South Ossetia. The other part is under Tbilisi’s military control and until today had no political status. In reaction to the South Ossetia’s declaration of independence, the Gamsakhurdia government abolished its status as an autonomous region, integrating it into the administrative region of Shida Kartli. The partition of zones of control is a problem: Georgians hold the villages overlooking Tskhinvali in the east and west; nine new Georgian villages lie along the length of the road linking the capital to Java, the Roki tunnel, and North Ossetia. The villages separate the “capital” from the north which is controlled by Ossetian militias. Hemmed in, Tskhinvali must take a parallel route, the “route of life” to rejoin its “lung;” the remote Georgian villages are linked by a single path to the territories under the Tbilisi’s control.
The region has largely embodied the geopolitical and economic confrontations in Georgia. During the summer of 2004, the new government of Mikheil Saakashvili tried to take controls to a different level. To purify the economy, he closed the market in Ergneti, which was an outlet for contraband passing through South Ossetia, but also a point of sale for agricultural products from the regions of Tskhinvali and Gori. This vast black market constituted, in neutral territory, a place of precious exchange, the only economic integration of a highly divided region. Since its closure, all contact between Georgians and Ossetians has become more difficult, leading to an exacerbation of the alienation between the two sides. In Tskhinvali, as in Gori, many see this closure as a major misstep in the region.
Strong from its success in Adjara, and believing it could reconstitute Georgia’s territorial integrity, the young government attempted an assault on Tskhinvali, which was quickly halted because of international pressure. As a result, the status quo was reinforced and the progressive relaxation of relations initiated several years prior was cut short. Since then, the question of South Ossetia is now, more than ever, a stumbling block in Russian-Georgian relations. In South Ossetia, Tbilisi sees a manipulation by Moscow to undermine its nation-building efforts. Russia, omnipresent in the separatist republic, uses diverse facets of the conflict, like the idea of an Ossetian genocide, in its disputes with Georgia.
Referendum and Counter-Referendum
In this context, the November 12 elections constitute an important turning point. In Tskhinvali, the Kokoity regime has associated the presidential balloting with a referendum entitled: “Should the republic of South Ossetia retain its current status as an independent State, and be recognized by the international community?” To reiterate the question, although independence was already passed by 98% of voters in a January 1992 referendum, works in the end to support the current regime. Is this question imposed by Russia, or by Kokoity himself? If the Kremlin supports the referendum, it always declares that it does not intend to recognize the republic. The true instigator of the electoral production remains unknown.
But the new real strategic gift seems to come from Tbilisi. Handicapped by its lack of territorial integrity, Georgia does not seem to be in a position to acquire the integrity by force. The cabinet reshuffling two days prior to the elections, that removed Irakli Okruashvili from the position of Minister of Defense, author of the most bellicose speeches in the government, could be a sign to this effect. Is that a concession accorded to the Kremlin, although Saakashvili defends himself on this point? Whatever it is, the Georgian government has launched a new strategy in supporting alternative elections in the conflict-laden territory under Georgian control. The town of Eredvi has become the center of an Electoral Commission that has put in place not only a parallel referendum, but also the election of a president for this part of South Ossetia, for the same date. The campaign, announced by an Ossetian NGO recently opened in Tbilisi, the Salvation Union of Ossetians, were to initially pose the same question as in Tskhinvali. In the end however, ballots asked, “Should South Ossetia engage in discussions with Tbilisi concerning a federal State uniting it with Georgia?”
A presidential campaign was also launched, with five Ossetian candidates who turned towards Tbilisi and are now in disgrace with Kokoity. Although the Georgian government declared the two elections illegal, it is clear that the regime instigated the elections of an Ossetian president in the conflict zone populated by Georgians. The elected candidate and ex-Prime Minister of South Ossetia under Shibirov, Dimitri Sanakoev, was one of the leaders of South Ossetian separatist organizations at the end of the 1980s. Candidate number 5, as the candidates of the National Movement in Georgia traditionally are, will be based in Kurta, one of the nine Georgian villages hemmed in between Tskhinvali and the region of Java, a strategic place, if there is one.
Creating a Second Legitimacy in Southern Ossetia
The alternative elections supported by Tbilisi therefore must create a second autonomous entity on the edges of Tskhinvali. It must be pro-Georgian and it must represent the will of South Ossetia. The President of the Electoral Commission in Eredvi, Uruzmag Karkusov, attested that the elections orchestrated by Tskhinvali are discriminatory insomuch as neither the Georgians of South Ossetia nor the entirety of South Ossetia were accounted for. Dimitri Sanakoev along with one of the four other candidates, Maia Chigoeva-Tsaboshvili, denounced the pro-Russian orientation of Kokoity’s regime while maintaining that the question posed in Tskhinvali is: “Do you want to maintain the independence of South Ossetia and its orientation towards Russia?” The two candidates vow to act in the interests of peace, as they would be presidents of a multi-ethnic South Ossetia. They present themselves as weavers of reconciliation with the Georgian state. If a massively Georgian electorate votes them in, they themselves, as Ossetians, may claim the same legitimacy as Kokoity. His regime, denounced as corrupt and dictatorial, would therefore no longer be the sole option for Ossetians.
In opposition, Kokoity described the alternative balloting as an inflammatory provocation from Tbilisi. Moscow declared it illegal: even if the Tskhinvali alternative ballot is “Clearly legal according to the constitution of South Ossetia,” it is an element of destabilization instigated by Tbilisi.
In the streets of Tskhinvali competing advertisements showing children in soccer jerseys and other youth groups were spotlighted in order to encourage the realization of a future Ossetian nation. Members of North Ossetian organizations were equally present in Tskhinvali at the time of the election, and certain advertisements were addressed to them. One of them displayed a child in traditional armor, sword in hand, guarding a mountain valley, with the caption: “Build the Grand Alani” (An historic empire founded in Ossetia.) “If all the peoples of the Caucasus have the right to a state, why not us—the Ossetian Nation?” stated Alan, age 32. “Such an independence for North Ossetians is currently impossible in Russia,” he added, “We must show them the way.”
In Tskhinvali, the major discourse however, hinges upon past large-scale aggressions organized by Georgian authorities and upon the lack of guarantees the Georgian authorities offer. The fact also remains that Russian passports, goods, pensions and salaries are far more advantageous than their Georgian equivalents. The current state of Russo-Georgian relations does not encourage a union with Georgia.
Moving towards an Armed Peace?
The European Union, NATO and the US have verified the illegality of the two votes and no country has declared itself ready to recognize a South Ossetian independence which would violate Georgia’s territorial integrity. Rising diplomatic tensions on the eve of the vote could have foreshadowed an imminent confrontation. Nonetheless, accusations from both sides of preparations for attacks during the elections are unverified, and the movements of troops have not been major. Cabinet shuffling on both sides has also indicated possible changes in strategy; for once armed conflict seems to have been avoided. Did Russia intend to release pressure on South Ossetia? Have Russo-Georgian negotiations been opened? Will the conflict arise the day after two authorities take power in two Ossetias?
It is certain that the reality of the frozen conflict has changed and that Tbilisi has launched an active campaign towards a thaw. But, does this signify a pacifistic evolution or the militarization of the status quo? The placement of a second authority in the territory controlled by Tbilisi and the attitude of Kokoity’s regime towards it will soon tell. Since, for the time being, he will be governing over a territory populated by Georgians, the powers of the second president, Dimitri Sanakoev, have given him legitimacy in the eyes of Ossetians. Kokoity has admittedly been voted in at 98%, but influential factors can change quickly in this region. Nevertheless, if international actors are not prepared to allow negotiations to develop according to the new deal, it is just as possible that the status quo will only take on a new form.