Building the Case

In PACE Speech, Saakashvili Talks to Europe, not Secessionists

Secessionist leader of South Ossetia Eduard Kokoity, who is visiting Moscow, has rejected the settlement offer made by Mikheil Saakashvili, even before reading the text. Saakashvili’s speech however, was not addressed to Kokoity, but to the European capitals.

Georgia is building a case for an internationally backed re-integration of the country and Russia’s clumsy politics help Saakashvili to portray his government as the one offering democratic alternatives for the peoples of the secessionist provinces, while these provinces’ leaders stand accused of being Moscow’s puppets.

Saakashvili’s PACE offer essentially accumulates and re-states many elements that have been discussed in Georgia earlier and offers them as an official state policy.  As an official policy, offering South Ossetia autonomy is a break from earlier (pre-Saakashvili) mainstream rhetoric. The Georgian political elite has long been in agreement that Abkhazia should have autonomous status (as Abkhazia is the native, and only, homeland for the Abkhaz) but that South Ossetia was an artificial, Soviet construct.

Current estimates suggest that South Ossetian authorities control around 60% of the former territory of the South Ossetian Autonomous District, the rest is – at least nominally – under Tbilisi’s control. The estimated population of S.Ossetia is between 28-30 thousand people. So in this sense, offering not only full self-government but also represenation in the central government (i.e. certain quotas, not freely elected positions) can be considered a generous offer, by abstract political standards.

However, the reality is different. Saakashvili certainly knew that the S.Ossetian leadership would reject his offer, as Kokoity has no incentive to seek incorporation into Georgia’s political life. As Kokoity told Russia’s Echo Moskvy radio, when asked why he is never visits Tbilisi but frequently comes to Moscow, “it is obvious – I am a citizen of Russia, not of Georgia.”

Unlike Abkhzia, which, for the most part has an elected government that looks after the interests of its constituents,  S.Ossetian is controled by a leadership that is much more akin to a profiteering clan. Why would Kokoity forfeit profits from a free import of goods from Russia, linkages with high places in Moscow and ego-soothing media exposure by actually becoming accountable to the Georgian authorities?

It is also interesting to note that Saakashvili hinted that profitsharing could be negotiated, as he mentioned that Tblilisi would consider a free economic zone for S.Ossetia as well as a simplified border crossing regime. Although, admittedly, there is not current border regime at all – so not much consolation for Kokoity there either.

The venue for Saakashvili’s announcement was not selected by chance. He is, simply speaking, building a case against S.Ossetia leadership for top leaders in Europe, and, at the same time, trying to break Russia’s monopoly of influence over the situation in S.Ossetia.

The settlement offer was openly voiced and it will certainly be re-iterated later on. If S.Ossetia/Russia stonewall the proposal without justifying their position (like Kokoity’s  statement that “peace proposals only complicate the situation”) than political justification will emerge for stronger-arm policies on the side of Georgia. This is a short-term political profit.

In the longer-term, the format Saakashvili offered for an ultimate settlement is noteworthy. He called for internationally guaranteed processes wherein the Council of Europe acts as a peace facilitator; the OSCE as a peace monitor; the EU as a peace guarantor; the US as a peace supporter; and Russia “as a welcome and constructive partner.”

It is quite transparent that Tbilisi has slated a rather symbolic position for the OSCE (where Russia plays increasingly destructive role) and Russia itself, while the EU and CoE take the lead roles.

In fact, the proposals for an internationally monitored police force and an eventual merger of the armies is very similar to the Bosnian scenario, where the EU has recently taken over the lead from NATO in  the military field and has been involved in police development projects for sometime already.

The EU is not ready for Saakashvili’s call at this point, but the offer will remain on the table, and with OSCE’s role whithering, in 2-4 years the EU might want to consider the options. Georgia is currently trying to make the first crack in the Russian monopoly by attempting to convince the EU to replace the OSCE monitors at the Russia-Georgia border. If this happens, it would be yet another self-inflicted wound by Vladimir Putin’s administration, which recently blocked the extension of the OSCE monitoring mission on the Georgian/Russian border, over which Russia was able excercise a certain degree of political control.

Even more interesting was what Saakashvili did not say at PACE.  It was a surprise that he refused to talk regarding Abkhazia at yesterday’s session, especially as proposals over settlement of the Abkhazian conflict had been more precisely prepared.

Saakashvili was quoted as saying that the peace process in Abkhazia is impossible because the “Abkhazian side has left the negotiating table.” He was apparently referring to the summer of 2004, wherein the Abkhazians have left the negotiating table, as recently Abkhzian President-elect Sergey Bagapsh has expressed his readiness to resume talks.

What Saakashvili may have meant is that he expects Bagapsh to dis-avow his recent statement made in Moscow that a “return of the displaced persons to Abkhazia is impossible”.

Tbilisi, which, in general, welcomed Bagapsh’s victory in the de facto republic’s election, is disgruntled by a Russia-imposed settlement wherein Bagapsh and Russia’s puppet, Raul Khajimba, have a “double presidency.”  Aware that relations between these two leaders are far from cozy, Tbilisi is likely to wait for fresh, insidious brewings in Abkhaz politics to continue.

For now, Tbilisi will distance itself from the process, while making sure that accusations against Russian meddling in Abkhazia’s election process firmly stick on the international arena. Responding to the questions from the floor at PACE Saakasvhili slammed Russia for awarding Russian citizenship to the inhabitants of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, calling it a “violation of all international committments.”

“After this we are told [by Russia]: they are our citizens there [in Abkhazia and South Ossetia] and we have the right to send troops, send our officials and directly dictate who they [the citizens] should elect, when and how,” said the Georgian President.

Saakashvili’s PACE speech is only the beginning of the solidifying process that will further develop European interest in the conflict settlements in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The European leaders are highly sceptical of their possible role and pushing the agenda through would take time and consistent effort.  Saakashvili hopes that its fledging partnership with Ukraine and the backing of the US might help.

In the short term, however, Tbilisi remains exposed to further Russian interference in its secessionist provinces. In almost a paradoxical manner, though, such interference may only strengthen Tbilisi’s political case in Europe, which sees Russia drifting further away from adhering to a common set of values.

Saakashvili’s main task, then, is to avoid entanglements and unnecessary military skirmishes in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. To achieve this objective, he needs to pacify the ethnic Georgians living in these regions and elsewhere in the country.

Recent reciprocal kidnappings in South Ossetia showed that long-term international objectives for settlement of these conflicts can be endangered not only by secessionists but by ordinary Georgians, who call for decisive action, as well. Hence, Saakashvili is bound to continue talking tough, mainly for internal consumption.


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