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Wednesday, 16 June 2004

WILL OSSETIANS EMBRACE GEORGIA’S INITIATIVES?

Published in Field Reports
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By Theresa Freese (6/16/2004 issue of the CACI Analyst)

Many see the humanitarian activities as a “big show”. Perceiving the initiatives and a Georgian military buildup as an attempt to overthrow his government, the self-declared South Ossetian republic’s President Eduard Kokoev, on 12 June suspended all relations with Tbilisi outside of the Joint Control Commission, representing Georgia, South Ossetia, North Ossetia, and Russia. On the backdrop of a military buildup in Shida Kartli, the Georgian government has been launching a series of one-time humanitarian and cultural events across conflict zone villages.
Many see the humanitarian activities as a “big show”. Perceiving the initiatives and a Georgian military buildup as an attempt to overthrow his government, the self-declared South Ossetian republic’s President Eduard Kokoev, on 12 June suspended all relations with Tbilisi outside of the Joint Control Commission, representing Georgia, South Ossetia, North Ossetia, and Russia. On the backdrop of a military buildup in Shida Kartli, the Georgian government has been launching a series of one-time humanitarian and cultural events across conflict zone villages. Authorities describe their initiatives as their “first steps” towards reintegrating “Tskhinvali region”—how Georgian authorities refer to Ossetian-controlled territories—into Georgia. Ossetian journalists and displaced Georgians from Tskhinvali explain, however, that the authorities’ attempts to enter Tskhinvali on a “peaceful” mission are reminiscent of how the 1990 to 1992 civil conflict began. Moreover, many Ossetians want nothing to do with Georgia given their twelve years of de facto independence, their pro-Russia position, and the history of conflict. Consequently, Georgian representatives of humanitarian and cultural missions are barred from entering Tskhinvali region—even to pass into Georgian villages in Didi Liakhvi—by pro-Tskhinvali security forces and residents, allegedly upon direction from authorities. Thus, the Tskhinvali checkpoint has become a point of confrontation and communication, strictly monitored by Ossetian security forces, between Georgians and Ossetians.

Since Mikheil Kareli, the Shida Kartli governor, made his first humanitarian mission to deliver fertilizer to Ossetian villagers in Tskhinvali region on 4 June, he has faced consistent obstacles from Tskhinvali authorities, Ossetian peacekeepers and special forces, as well as local Ossetians. The first major confrontation occurred in Tsinagara, where one Ossetian security forces member fired shots into the air when Kareli arrived with his entourage. After negotiations failed, Kareli was forced to leave 400 bags of fertilizer in a neighboring village on Georgian territory, where villagers promised to deliver the fertilizer to Tsinagara residents.

In Gromi Gorge, an elderly woman met Kareli’s group screaming “Get out! We don’t want your help! We already bought fertilizer in Orjonikidze! What I need is flour and you took it from me!” She was upset that Ergneti market had been closed, and was worried that her family could not survive without it. The tax-free market provided low-cost goods to residents and a venue for selling local products. Further, she was angry that Georgian police had confiscated Ergneti flour she had purchased.

Not all Ossetians turned their backs to aid. Those in Georgian-controlled villages eagerly greet Kareli, distribute the fertilizer, and make toasts “to peace between Georgians and Ossetians”. While other educational, cultural, and social initiatives are continuing, a general pattern has emerged whereby nobody can pass Tskhinvali to reach Didi Liakhvi, including the governor. Shida Kartli authorities hope Ossetians will participate in the ongoing programs by crossing into Georgian villages. Meanwhile, the repair of an alternative road to Didi Liakhvi began on 14 June.

Governor Kareli explained, “We are not going to stop our humanitarian initiatives because we see that the Ossetian population is seeking our support. People who obviously oppose the Kokoev government accept the aid—they don’t hide it. Others, who are afraid and under pressure, are still trying to accept it.”

Observers worry that Saakashvili’s government is moving too quickly with the momentum of the two Georgian Rose Revolutions—and particularly Ajaria—behind them. Planning an Ajara revolution in South Ossetia will not work: this region has entirely different social, economic, and political issues. One Tbilisi-based activist explained, “Right now, Ossetians are calling this the ‘humanitarian invasion’. Rather than coming in with cameras and a big entourage, authorities need to enter with genuine support. If they are sincere, information will spread quickly and Ossetians might support the initiatives.”

While the rest of Georgia has experienced fourteen years of civil society development, South Ossetia has had none. Thus, Ossetians have no platform through which to protest the Kokoev government. Without counterparts in Tskhinvali, Georgians NGOs find it difficult to discuss conflict resolution issues with Ossetians. Freedom of speech is largely deemed absent in Tskhinvali. Indeed, when I asked one Ossetian at the Tskhinvali checkpoint, whether he could envision Ossetia reintegrating with Georgia—and he began to answer positively, two Ossetian peacekeepers abruptly pushed him away from me, yelling in Ossetian. One Shida Kartli authority explained his government’s frustration: “We have not met our first step because we can’t communicate with the Ossetians, so we don’t know what they need!”

Georgian media representatives are not allowed to film events at the Tskhinvali checkpoint—only Ossetian media is allowed to operate freely. When I asked two Tskhinvali-based journalists why security forces censored the Georgian media, they confidently responded, “because they broadcast false information”. Georgian cameras are confiscated and reporters handled harshly if they resist orders.

An atmosphere of fear now prevails in Tskhinvali region. In recent weeks, there have been various reports of beatings, arrests, and officials losing their positions for communicating with Georgians. One local authority explained to officials, “If you leave your fertilizers here now, they will kill me tonight. It’s better if you take them to the neighboring village where we can distribute them at night”. Residents report that Tskhinvali authorities have built trenches, delivered arms to unauthorized persons, and that troops with heavy military equipment have entered Ossetia from the North Caucasus. Meanwhile, Georgian peacekeepers and Ministry of Interior troops have set up camp along the conflict zone.

Georgians believe Saakashvili is demonstrating power and would never initiate a conflict. Yet, if reports are true that on 15 June armed Ossetians attempted to enter Georgian territory, anything can trigger an event. Both sides now look to Tbilisi and Russia to solve the issues through diplomatic channels. However, unless the Georgian government can come up with well-planned, long-term initiatives, which Ossetians will not perceive as a “show”, it is unlikely that Tskhinvali residents will embrace reintegration with Georgia any time soon. Until the Tskhinvali government allows a dialogue between Georgians and Ossetians, conflict resolution initiatives are difficult and the situation will remain extremely tense.

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