Monday, September 22, 2008

Window on Eurasia: How Georgia Made South Ossetians ‘Separatists in Spite of Themselves’

Paul Goble

Vienna, September 22 – Unlike the Abkhazians who have a long tradition of opposing Georgian rule, South Ossetians do not, according to a leading Russian analysts, and they might have been content to remain in Georgia had Tbilisi, first under Zviad Gamsakhurdia and now under Mikhail Saakashvili, not made them “separatists in spite of themselves.”
And unless the Georgian government learns the lesson from its loss of South Ossetia – and Sergei Markedonov insists that there is no way Tbilisi will ever get that “partially recognized state formation” back – and changes its approach, it risks pushing the ethnic Armenian community and perhaps others in the same direction (
Many observers in both Moscow and the West currently view South Ossetia and Abkhazia as equivalent phenomenon, but that is an enormous mistake, the Moscow analyst says. “Even in Stalin’s times,” he points out, Abkhazians protested – most famously in 1931 when their republic was reduced SSR Socialist Republic.
(Between 1921 and 1931, Abkhazia had the status of a union republic – albeit of a very special kind. Unlike all other union republics which were constitutionally subordinate to Moscow, the Abkhaz SSR was subordinate to Georgia. Many Abkhazians recalled that when the Soviet Union broke up along union republic lines.)
After the death of Stalin as conditions in the Soviet Union became less oppressive, Abkhazians more or less regularly protested against Georgian rule with demonstrations and petition drives in 1967, 1977-78, and 1989. And a genuine national movement which spread from the intelligentsia to the population can be said to have emerged.
But the situation in South Ossetia was very different. It was, Markedonov, “much better integrated as a unit within Georgia, and Ossetians were much better integrated within Georgian society.” On the one hand, in Soviet times, there were more Ossetian schools in South Ossetia than in the RSFSR’s North Ossetia.
On the other, the two communities continued to live amongst each other. Until the 1990s, 100,000 Ossetians lived in Georgia proper, a figure that has fallen to less than 30,000 now. And until the August 2008 conflict, many ethnic Georgians lived in Ossetia, although most of them have now fled.
This split, one that has now cost Tbilisi its control over South Ossetia, Markedonov argues, is the direct result of the proclamation by Georgian leaders like Gamsakhurdia and Saakashvili of “a slogan that is absolutely unacceptable under the conditions of the poly-ethnic Caucasus: ‘Georgia for the Georgians.’”
That becomes obvious if one considers the events of 18 years ago that the South Ossetians now say was the beginning of their drive for independence. In November 1989, the legislature of the South Ossetian Autonomous Oblast called for its transformation into an autonomous republic “within Georgia.”
Then on September 20, 1990, the Ossetian government as part of what became known as “the parade of sovereignties” declared the formation of the South-Ossetian Soviet Democratic Republic, but in that document as well, there was no suggestion that it would be independent of Georgia.
Georgians responded to this trend with extreme hostility. Immediately after the first, thousands of Georgians marched in Tskhinvali against Ossetian pretensions. Then in June 1990, the Georgian Supreme Soviet declared all laws and treaties concluded after 1921 null and void, thus undermining the foundation of the South Ossetian Autonomous District.
And finally, on December 11, 1990, the Georgian Supreme Soviet explicitly abolished South Ossetia’s autonomous status, an action that led to the first blockade of what Georgians began to speak of as “the mutinous territory” and to four military advances into Tskhinvali (February 1991, March 1991, June 1992, and August 2008).
But even after the events of the early 1990s, the Georgian population was never expelled from South Ossetia, and the South Ossetian authorities declared Georgian an official language. Both communities continued to trade, often in the shadow economy, but even that continued to tie South Ossetia to Georgia, Markedonov says.
And even efforts to resolve the tensions between Tskhinvali and Tbilisi had some positive effects, he argues. Georgian and Russian Federation battalions of peacekeepers generally were able to work together, and the sides signed documents which allowed for the rehabilitation of the territory and even the return of IDPs after the conflicts of the 1990s.
Indeed, after the coming to power of Eduard Shevardnadze in place of the openly nationalist Gamsakhurdia, there was an expectation among most South Ossetians that a formula would be found to restore their autonomy within Georgia rather than that they would be forced out.
But “ the coming to power of Mikhail Saakashvili and his demonstrative desire to resolve this problem now, ‘instead of waiting a hundred years,’ finally buried hopes” for such an outcome, especially after he declared on July 20, 2004, that he was ready to denounce the Dragomys accords if the Georgian flag did not fly over the South Ossetian capital.
“Thus began the narrow road which led both Georgia and South Ossetia to the Tskhinvali tragedy” of August 2008, Markedonov says, an event that showed that Georgia, given its policies, was not going to be able to say farewell to the Soviet past but preserve the territory of the Georgian SSR.
Seventeen years ago, Gamsakhurdia said that “in Georgia, there are Ossetians but no Ossetia.” He “has turned out to be a prophet,” the Moscow specialist says, because “in today’s Georgia, there is no longer a South Ossetia.” Tbilisi will not get it back, and if it does not change its current policies, Georgia will lose even more.
Indeed, the August 2008 events mean that there is now a 50-50 chance that ethnic Armenians in Javakhetia might decide to pursue independence if Tbilisi rejects their call on August 19 for “the formation of a federative state,” something the Javakhetia Armenians say is “the only possible variant for the development of Georgia.

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