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Comment: Russia's Dead End in South Ossetia

Is Moscow’s support for South Ossetia in the current dispute with Georgia working against its own interests?
By Andrei Piontkovsky

Leo Tolstoy wrote that “All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” at the beginning of Anna Karenina.

This holds true for multinational states. Yet in that case, there are very few “happy families”.

Around the world, there are dozens of serious ethnic conflicts within states, but there exist no common methods of conflict resolution. Reference to international law is pointless, as it sets out a series of sacred but strikingly contradictory principles: state sovereignty, territorial integrity, and nations’ right to self-determination and human rights.

Russia’s stance on the crisis in South Ossetia is a striking illustration of this paradox. With a touching degree of intellectual naivety, the absolute majority of Russian politicians and mass media outlets view the decade-old war in Chechnya only in terms of territorial integrity, and the conflict in South Ossetia solely within the context of the Ossetian people’s right to self-determination.

When there is conflict between a central power and an ethnic province, the centre must generally bear the greater responsibility. It is the duty of central authority to build its relationship with a national minority in such a way that political and especially military conflict can be avoided. It follows that most of the responsibility for the Chechnya tragedy lies with Moscow, while the current troubled Georgian-Ossetian relationship has its origins in the behaviour of former Georgian president Zviad Gamsakhurdia, who abolished South Ossetia’s autonomous status in 1990 and set off the military conflict there.

The new Georgian administration of Mikheil Saakashvili appears to understand this, judging by its decision to revoke the resolution abolishing Ossetian autonomy, and expressing a readiness to guarantee that if South Ossetia returns to Georgian administration, it will enjoy at least the same status as the autonomous republic of North Ossetia does within the Russian Federation.

Such an arrangement – accompanied by measures to build confidence between Ossetians and Georgians - is the only way the conflict can be resolved. All other scenarios are doomed to failure.

Demands by the South Ossetian authorities to join the Russian Federation, which are supported by influential circles in Russia, are both irresponsible and provocative. No sane Russian government will ever allow this to happen, as such an annexation would open a Pandora’s box throughout the entire post-Soviet region.

It should not be forgotten that about a third of the population of around 60,000 in South Ossetia are ethnic Georgians, and that villages belonging to the two ethnic groups are mixed higgledy-piggledy so that it is hard to draw clear lines between them. If South Ossetia were ever to join Russia, these Georgians would either be “cleansed” from their homes or forced to become part of Russia.

That could trigger another Caucasian war. It seems that all the bloodshed of the decade-long “small, victorious war” in Chechnya is not enough for this patriotic section of Russian society.

Aware of the catastrophic consequences of this step, Moscow remains unwilling to annex South Ossetia de jure. Yet is doing so de facto through policies which have granted Russian citizenship to the majority of the South Ossetian population, and provided “fraternal international support” to the unrecognised republic in the form of Cossack volunteers and military equipment.

The territory’s ambiguous status benefits the powerful South Ossetian criminal groupings that have made smuggling the only profitable sector of the republic’s economy.

When Eduard Shevardnadze was president of Georgia, the authorities in Tbilisi had a share in this flourishing joint venture. However, when the new Georgian government moved to crack down on smuggling via South Ossetian territory – a problem that in fact does substantial harm to Russia, too - the head of Russian peacekeeping forces in the region, General Svyatoslav Nabzdorov, all of a sudden sprang to the defence of the black market business. In an interview for the Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta in mid-July he said, “In a conflict area, it is not possible to take the same anti-smuggling measures as in a normal region. The specifics of the situation are different, and so is the psychology of the population.”

The current position seems to work in favour of influential figures and the authorities in South Ossetia, as well as of General Nabzdorov.

But Russia’s true interests are quite different – they lie in the military and economic security of its borders, and in the stability of its southern neighbour Georgia.

If Russia respects Georgian sovereignty and territorial integrity, as it officially declares it does, then it should agree to Tbilisi’s proposal to set up a joint Russian-Georgian checkpoint at the southern exit of the Roki tunnel, the main route through the mountains into South Ossetia. Such a move would be in Russia’s own interests.

If Russia is concerned with the national rights of South Ossetians and Abkhazians, it should offer to act as guarantor - preferably jointly with the European Union and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe – of the protection of minority rights and the provision of broad autonomy for minorities within a multinational Georgian state.

Andrei Piontkovsky is director of the Centre for Strategy Studies in Moscow.

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