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

US Deployment in Georgia Angers South Ossetia

The new leader of the breakaway republic of South Ossetia is calling for its principal ally to help counter the US deployment in Georgia.
By Alan Parastayev

Eduard Kokoyev, the new leader of South Ossetia, has called on Moscow to send more peacekeepers to his breakaway republic following the arrival of American military advisers in Georgia.


"We reserve the right to ask the leadership of the Russian Federation to send an additional contingent of peacekeeping forces to the territory of South Ossetia," said Kokoyev, elected last December, in a newspaper interview. "We are confident that Russia is the only guarantor of peace and tranquillity in the Transcaucasus." Russia currently has about 500 peacekeepers stationed in South Ossetia.


On March 17, the first US military advisers arrived in Tbilisi, as part of a mission to train and equip Georgian special forces to deal with suspected al-Qaeda militants hiding in the lawless Pankisi Gorge.


The new military cooperation between Georgia and America has provoked fears in Abkhazia and South Ossetia - the two regions trying to break away from Georgian rule - that the Tbilisi authorities may be tempted to move against them.


As in Abkhazia, Tskhinval's ministry of defence has said it is preparing for a possible mobilisation in case of renewed fighting between Georgia and South Ossetia.


South Ossetia lies only 100 km west of the Pankisi. An additional cause for concern is that some 1,500 Ossetians still live in the gorge, while more than two thousand have left in the last ten years. The remainder have asked the authorities in Tskhinval to receive them, complaining that, under the threat of robbery and kidnapping, they cannot graze their cattle or leave their villages.


Recently, South Ossetian non-governmental organisations proposed sending a group of international observers to the Pankisi to study the situation in the Ossetian villages there.


Both Abkhazia and South Ossetia have unilaterally declared their independence from Georgia. But, as relations between Tbilisi and Moscow have deteriorated over the past few months, the leaders of both self-proclaimed republics have recently also publicly discussed another option, unification with Russia.


On March 1, the Tskhinval parliament, supported by the new president, voted to send a message to the Russian assembly, the State Duma, resolving that "in connection with the real threat of new armed aggression by Georgia against South Ossetia. . .the parliament of the Republic of South Ossetia appeals to the State Duma of the Russian Federation to recognise the independence of the Republic of South Ossetia."


In its turn, the State Duma passed a resolution on March 6, condemning the American military deployment in Georgia. However, the motion was milder than a previous draft, which had threatened to recognise the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The resolution adopted by the Duma warned the Tbilisi government that if it began to act more aggressively towards the two breakaway republics, the Russian parliament would respect what it called their "expressions of free choice".


Kokoyev - or Kokoite, as he is called in Ossetian - is himself a Russian citizen, who has struck a much tougher note on relations with Tbilisi than his predecessor.


In an interview with the newspaper Vremya Novostei, published on March 6, he said that he was not prepared to talk to the Georgian president, Eduard Shevardnadze. "He ought to recognise the genocide of the Ossetians and personally apologise," he said. "He must bear equal responsibility with (former Georgian president) Zviad Gamsakhurdia."


Kokoyev, 38, is a former youth leader and wrestling champion. In the fighting with Georgia in 1991-2, he headed the youngest and largest armed detachment on the South Ossetian side.


Last December, Kokoyev defeated the Communist leader and chairman of parliament Stanislav Kochiev to win the election, after the surprise exit of the former president Ludvig Chibirov from the contest in the first round of voting.


Chibirov lost despite strong support from the leadership in North Ossetia across the mountains. In his eight-year rule in South Ossetia, he had acquired the reputation of an authoritarian leader, who relied heavily on his security agencies and took all decisions in the breakaway republic, whether large or small.


The former president's critics accused him of adopting a weak position in negotiations with Georgia and failing to improve the economic condition of South Ossetia, despite the revenues coming in from the Transcaucasian highway.


Kokoyev ran his campaign with the slogan, "Those who defended the republic ought to lead it". His success appeared to stem from high-level support from Russia. During the election campaign, Kokoyev's opponents accused him of links to Russian criminal circles.


However, his supporters said that he was merely in close contact with businessmen who were funding the reconstruction of the Transcaucasian highway linking North and South Ossetia via a tunnel across the region. Trade and smuggling along this road is the main sustenance for South Ossetia's economy.


Alan Parastayev is director of the South Ossetian Centre of Humanitarian Initiatives and Research