Ossetians Defy Tbilisi

Recent talks in Vienna have failed to break the deadlock between Georgia and the mutinous ethnic enclave of South Ossetia.

Ossetians Defy Tbilisi

Recent talks in Vienna have failed to break the deadlock between Georgia and the mutinous ethnic enclave of South Ossetia.

The old adage, "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter" lies at the heart of the ongoing conflict between Georgia and South Ossetia.

While Tbilisi refuses to see the mutinous statelet as anything but an autonomous oblast within the Georgian state, the South Ossetians claim they are the victims of an ethnic-cleansing policy which came hard on the heels of Georgian independence.

As a result, eight years of peace talks between the two sides have resulted in deadlock. Although a treaty signed in 1996 rejected the use of force to resolve the conflict, South Ossetia remains in political purgatory - unrecognised by the international community but maintaining a de facto independence from the Georgian state.

The latest round of talks was held in Vienna last month, in accordance with an agreement signed at the Istanbul summit of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

Most of the ground covered was purely symbolic. Both sides reiterated their commitment to non-aggression, ethnic tolerance and the rehabilitation of refugees. Delegates also agreed to "evaluate the roots and causes of the conflict" which erupted into vicious fighting in 1991.

But no measures were taken to redefine South Ossetia's political status - an issue which remains at the centre of the territorial dispute. And talk of the statelet's long-term ambition to secede to North Ossetia has yet to become a serious item on the agenda.

The first signs of unrest in South Ossetia became evident in 1988 when the Georgian nationalist movement, under Zviad Gamsakhurdia, rose to prominence.

Slogans such as "Georgia for the Georgians" and "Non-Georgians are guests in this country" provoked an angry reaction from ethnic Ossetians who demanded the status of an "autonomous republic". In November 1989, Georgian paramilitaries marched on the South Ossetian border and staged a two-month blockade - but they failed to dampen the Ossetians' resolve.

Over the next year, the Council of People's Deputies in the capital, Tskhinvali, made repeated attempts to declare independence from Georgia and join the Russian Federation. However, in January 1991, Tbilisi moved between 5,000 and 6,000 interior ministry troops into the region, sparking off an 18-month war.

Around 800 people were killed during the fighting and another 1,700 wounded. Nearly 100 Ossetian settlements were destroyed. A ceasefire was signed in Sochi in June 1992, although, less than a month later, Georgian troops made a final unsuccessful attempt to seize Tskhinvali.

Since the cessation of hostilities, the South Ossetian government has drawn up its own constitution and declared a "sovereign democratic state, created as a result of the Ossetian people's right to self-determination".

The Georgian constitution, consolidated two years later, described the former Soviet republic as "an independent, united and indivisible state, which includes the Abkhazian Autonomous Republic and the former autonomous oblast of South Ossetia." Officially, South Ossetia is referred to as the Tskhinvalsky Region.

Over the past few years, the Georgian leader, Eduard Shevardnadze, and the South Ossetian leader, Ludvig Chibirov, have met just three times, the last occasion being in June 1998. The clash of personalities has given little hope for reconciliation.

The legacy of the war still lingers, with thousands of displaced people still fearing to return to their homes.

In 1989, there were 164,000 Ossetians living in Georgia, with more than 65,000 resident in South Ossetia. During the armed conflict, around 60,000 of these were forced to flee the country - many seeking sanctuary in neighbouring North Ossetia, on the other side of the Caucasus Ridge. In the same period, up to 12,000 Georgians were forcibly ejected from South Ossetia.

Since early 1997, when the first refugees were allowed back into the conflict zone, only 1,000 have returned to South Ossetia and another 200 to Georgia.

However, the example being set by nearby Abkhazia, which has rejected compromise with Tbilisi, continues to give Ossetian politicians hope that they can emerge triumphant from the political stalemate. Chibirov is clearly waiting to see how the Abkhazian conflict is resolved before making his move.

Until that time, the Georgian-Ossetian peace talks are unlikely to progress beyond the already familiar cycle of apathetic debate and tired rhetoric.

Alexander Dzadziev is a political commentator in Vladikavkaz, North Ossetia.

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