Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

South Ossetia's Other President

Rival leader of South Ossetia tells IWPR the region’s future is within Georgia.
By Sopho Bukia
An unremarkable building in the village of Kurta in South Ossetia is the headquarters of the newest president in the Caucasus.

The building, surrounded last week by mud and melting snow, houses South Ossetia’s "alternative government" and its alternative president, the 37-year-old Dmitry Sanakoyev. The territory the new president rules over is tiny. Kurta is one of four Georgian villages in a part of South Ossetia that has remained under the control of Tbilisi since the rest of the region separated de facto from Georgia after the conflict of 1990-92.

Last November, incumbent leader Eduard Kokoity, was re-elected president of South Ossetia in a poll the international community refused to recognise. A referendum held at the same time reaffirmed South Ossetians’ desire to be independent.

Simultaneously, however, another poll - also unrecognised - in the Georgian-controlled part of South Ossetia resulted in the election of former defence minister Sanakoyev and another group of voters reaffirmed their desire to be part of Georgia.

This double vote has changed the political landscape of the South Ossetia dispute, although no one is yet sure what it will lead to. The population of South Ossetia as a whole is variously estimated to be between 30 and 80,000 of whom up to a third live in the Georgian part of the territory.

Kurta is just five minutes by road to the north of the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali and the fear is that the establishment of the alternative government could lead to violence.

There is little sign of an armed presence in and around Kurta. On the way to Kurta, IWPR encountered only two Georgian police checkpoints, manned by three or four armed men and the only men under arms in the village itself were those guarding the government headquarters.

Nino, 20, lives next door to the government building and says, “We used to be afraid of going out in the evening but now what is there to fear? The president and his guards are here next to us.”

The mood in Kurta is one of expectation. Outside the government headquarters, a woman said she had come to ask the president to give her son a job. The building smelt of fresh paint and two women were polishing an already-sparkling floor.

"They earn a salary of 200 lari (120 US dollars), but they’ll work day and night for this sum in order not to lose their job," explained a local journalist.

On the door of one of the rooms a nameplate in three languages, Georgian, Ossetian, and Russian, reads "South Ossetian President Dmitry Sanakoyev."

Sanakoyev understands Georgian but prefers to speak Russian. An ethnic Ossetian, he trained to be a teacher but war prevented him taking up the profession. He fought against the Georgian troops during the conflict over South Ossetia, then served as both prime minister and defence minister there. Later, he left Tskhinvali after a quarrel with current leader Eduard Kokoity, taking a substantial group of supporters with him. His family now lives in Tbilisi.

Sanakoyev is tall and smiling. He is evidently uncomfortable when the questions turn to Kokoity and says he does not like talking about him. A large flat-screen television is tuned to the Tbilisi-based Russian-language television channel for South Ossetia, Alania.

"South Ossetia's future is in Georgia,” said the alternative president firmly. “Only Georgia can grant us a legal space. And it is high time we understood that, no matter how we may want to be independent, we will not be independent."

He said that Russia is manipulating the conflict in order to put pressure in Georgia, not because it wants to see a prosperous South Ossetia. "The world community will never allow South Ossetia to become independent, which means that we must search for another path," said Sanakoyev.

He argues that if South Ossetia affirms its commitment to be part of Georgia, the Georgian authorities will agree to give it a special status.

Officially, the government in Kurta is not recognised by Tbilisi and Sanakoyev said that he has not met Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili.

He says that the relatively large salaries in his government (his ministers receive more than 1,000 dollars a month) are provided by “sponsors”. But few doubt that he derives his support from Tbilisi.

One sign of this was that Merab Antadze, Georgia’s minister for conflict resolution, attended Sanakoyev's inauguration.

Antadze later said, "The international community should take into account the new reality in the region, and should engage in a dialogue with the de facto Sanakoyev authorities. I have already appealed to the international community with this proposal.”

In response the Russian government condemned Sanakoyev as a destabilising force, while Kokoity said, "The alternative government supported by Tbilisi aims to split the Ossetian people and escalate tension in the region."

Some Georgian experts believe that the Georgian government wants to prove to the international community on the eve of the decision on Kosovo’s status that South Ossetia is divided and therefore not analogous to Kosovo.

"It is clear that this is no longer just a Georgian-Ossetian conflict but a confrontation within Ossetian society, a part of which has said that they want to live with Georgia," said security expert David Darchiashvili.

However, conflict expert Paata Zakareishvili said that Sanakoyev could not properly claim to represent South Ossetian society.

"In reality, there is no rift within Ossetian society,” said Zakareishvili. “This is a fabrication. Those who elected Sanakoyev are Georgians who have never had any problems with Tbilisi. Tbilisi’s problems are with the other part of South Ossetia where ethnic Ossetians live, and that part is unanimous in its views on Georgia."

In response to IWPR’s question about his own legitimacy, Sanakoyev himself asked, "Is the Kokoity government that does not allow ethnic Georgians who live on South Ossetian territory legitimate?"

His supporters point out that many of the 12 ministers in his government are ethnic Ossetians. Some of them, such as the two brothers Uruzmag and Jemal Karkusov, served as ministers under Kokoity, but fell out with him. Jemal Karkusov spent time in prison and was freed with the help of the Georgian security services.

Kokoity is now demanding that the "traitors" be extradited to Tskhinvali.

International diplomats have so far avoided meeting Sanakoyev or passing judgement on him. Levan Berdzenishvili of the opposition Republican Party says that "by implementing the 'alternative government' project, Georgia will neither achieve the settlement of the conflict nor gain support from the international community".

In Kurta, Misha, 22, an Ossetian who comes from the village but has moved away, says he’s been

offered a job as Sanakoyev's bodyguard. “The salary is good but I don’t know what to do. I probably won’t agree. I would have agreed had I not been an Ossetian. I have relatives in Tskhinvali and they will not understand this. And who knows how long this will last?" he said.

Ivane, 81, jokes that his village now has four presidents, "Saakashvili, Sanakoyev, Kokoity, and Putin - he [Putin] pokes his nose in here too. The new president, Sanakoyev, is saying that he does not want war. That means that he is a good man.”

Sopho Bukia is IWPR’s Georgia Editor.