By Niklas Nilsson (03/19/2008 issue of the CACI Analyst)

For several years, Georgia has attempted to change the negotiation and peacekeeping formats in the conflicts in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Following the recent government shakeup, Georgia’s new Minister tasked with the conflict zones, Temuri Yakobashvili, announced Tbilisi’s decision to pull out from the Joint Control Commission, a setup heavily biased against it, and replace it with a new structure with much greater international involvement. As could be expected, Russia and South Ossetia strongly rejected this move, while Western powers have yet to respond.

BACKGROUND: Both in Azerbaijan and Georgia, frustration has been growing in recent years with the inadequate and unsuccessful formats for conflict resolution and peacekeeping in the conflicts over Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno Karabakh. In the Nagorno Karabakh case, there is at least an internationalized mechanism in place: the OSCE Minsk Group. In the case of Georgia’s conflicts, Moscow dominates both the peacekeeping and negotiation structures, and no internationalized format for conflict resolution exists. Because of this, as well as Russian growing intervention in the conflict zones since the 2003 Georgian Rose Revolution, Tbilisi has with much greater vigor than Azerbaijan sought to gain international support for its goal to alter the existing structures. In South Ossetia, specifically, Tbilisi has been successful in changing the balance on the ground, managing to regain the loyalty of a major force in the South Ossetian separatist movement. This force, led by Dmitry Sanakoyev, is now the head of a Tbilisi-loyal provisional administration, exercising power over the almost 50 percent of South Ossetia’s territory controlled by Georgia.

On March 4, Georgia’s new State Minister for Reintegration, Temuri Yakobashvili, announced Georgia’s decision to no longer participate in the Joint Control Commission (JCC), tasked with monitoring the cease-fire in South Ossetia since 1992. The announcement came a few days after Mr. Yakobashvili’s proposal to replace the JCC with a new format for the South Ossetian conflict resolution process. The JCC has until now formally consisted of four main parties: Georgia, the South Ossetia de facto authorities, Russia, and the Republic of North Ossetia. The OSCE also participates in the JCC, but is lacking a role in negotiations. Negotiations on South Ossetia have been deadlocked ever since the inception of the JCC and the fact that both Russia and North Ossetia are clearly biased in favor of South Ossetia has led Tbilisi to repeatedly call for an internationalization of the format. In the words of Mr. Yakobashvili, ”existing formats are yet another mechanism to keep the frozen conflicts frozen. Close examining shows one Georgian side and on the other, the same side cloned in three versions. Even the North Ossetian [peacekeeping] battalion is staffed by South Ossetians … and [South Ossetian de facto president Eduard] Kokoity’s government includes people seconded by the Russian Federation”. Instead, Tbilisi proposes a 2+2+2 format, replacing North Ossetia with the Tbilisi-backed provisional government of South Ossetia under Dmitri Sanakoyev, established in 2007, and adding the EU and OSCE. This proposal would allow for direct negotiations between the Tbilisi- and Moscow backed parts of South Ossetia, between Tbilisi and Moscow, and with international involvement in the form of the EU and the OSCE. This would, according to Mr. Yakobashvili, provide “a formula encompassing the real players: the provisional government, which exists and delivers public goods, as well as the EU which is the largest donor to the region”.

IMPLICATIONS: The proposal can be seen as a logical continuation of Tbilisi’s efforts of winning the hearts and minds of Ossetians, through changing the situation on the ground and providing a visible alternative to the secessionist authorities on South Ossetian territories under Tbilisi’s control. These efforts have included establishing the aforementioned provisional administration under Mr. Sanakoyev, and providing the region with significant financial assistance, in large part made possible through EU funding. Mr. Yakobashvili underlines Tbilisi’s commitment, regardless of whether the proposed new format is accepted or not, to continue providing the means for economic development to the region and its population. Additional projects will be created to improve the social and economic life of the population, including establishing food processing factories and providing inhabitants of South Ossetia with opportunities for education in the Baltic States and Ukraine. “What is important is not the political process, but the living conditions of the people”, Mr. Yakobashvili states.

Tbilisi’s proposal was immediately denounced by the South Ossetian de facto authorities, claiming they would refuse attending negotiations involving Mr. Sanakoyev. On a visit to Tbilisi on March 6, the Russian chief negotiator on South Ossetia, Yuri Popov, stressed the importance of retaining negotiations within the JCC format, and that Tbilisi’s proposal would, if realized, result in the immediate withdrawal of the South Ossetian side from the negotiating process. Further, Popov stated that Georgia’s withdrawal from the JCC also requires its withdrawal from the 1992 Georgian-Russian Dagomis accords (or Sochi agreement) on peacekeeping in South Ossetia. Mr. Yakobashvili, however, maintained that the proposed change of format would take place within existing agreements.

Russia has in the aftermath of Kosovo’s declaration of independence further reinforced its support for South Ossetia, as well as Abkhazia, stressing the importance of Kosovo as a precedent for other ethnic conflicts. On March 6, Russia withdrew from the 1996 CIS treaty imposing economic sanctions on Abkhazia and has subsequently held discussions in the State Duma on the prospects for recognizing the independence of the two regions. Russia’s envoy to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, has also sought to connect these decisions to the outcomes of the Bucharest NATO summit in April, where a verdict will likely be cast on Georgia’s prospects for obtaining a Membership Action Plan within NATO. Several NATO members oppose a MAP for Georgia due to the implications Georgia’s unresolved conflicts and its troubled relations with Russia may have for the alliance.

CONCLUSIONS: Whether the same logic applies to western views on the conflicts in Georgia may prove decisive to Tbilisi’s new proposal for internationalizing the negotiation format over South Ossetia. Several EU and OSCE member states are likely to oppose participation in the negotiation process in light of Russian resistance to any change of the format; but at the same time, the inadequate character of the current structures for peacekeeping and negotiations in the South Caucasus – dating back to the realities of the early 1990s – is gaining growing acceptance. South Ossetia may be the most obvious example, but by no means the only one. Whether this growing understanding will be enough to provide Tbilisi with traction in the West is another matter.

AUTHOR’S BIO: Niklas Nilsson is a Researcher with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, based in Stockholm.