08 July 2009, 14:00

National Reconciliation in South Ossetia

The Commission of National Reconciliation in South Ossetia could become a vital tool for reducing tensions and finding lasting political solutions in the region, argues journalist and analyst Valeriy Dzutsev.

All the sides of the August 2008 conflict in South Ossetia and Georgia as a result lost out either militarily or politically. Tbilisi lost control over the territories and suffered human and material losses. South Ossetia, also having suffered human and material losses, has not acquired international recognition and its state is still precarious. Russia suffered image losses among the CIS countries and found itself internationally isolated. The U.S. did not defend its loyal ally Georgia, as many in Georgia had expected it would.

Besides, there are strong reasons to believe, that no side has achieved what it wanted. Georgia did not regain control over South Ossetia and Abkhazia, having lost even those territories, that it had controlled prior to August 2008. South Ossetia even though was recognized by Russia, has not become really an independent country, while its prospects for prosperity and security are almost as uncertain as they were before the latest war. Russia did not gain control over Georgia, that it likely desired, on the contrary all Georgian political forces are united on the question of lost territories and are very anti-Russian.

Probably because of the "unachieved results syndrome" the tensions in the region have not subsided, while the participants of the stand off accuse each other of preparations for another war. On June 5 the Russian military chief of staff stated that Georgia had already better military equipment, that it had in August last year. On June 29 in its turn the Georgian foreign ministry called the unfolding large-scale Russian military games in the Northern Caucasus "a dangerous provocation".

Unfortunately the immediate participants of the conflict - the governments of Tbilisi and Tskhinval - have taken a fairly passive stance in regard to creation of trust and de-escalation of tensions in the region, apparently relying on the bigger players - Russia, the U.S. and EC - to resolve their problems for them. Meanwhile no one knows the situation on the ground as well as those very people who live there, in Georgia and South Ossetia, so the main peacemaking potential lies within the local limits. Being wholly dependent on the outside actors, both sides risk, that the issues of their concern will be solved not exactly as they would like them to be solved.

Despite the fact, that the big players oppose each other on the main issues of the peace settlement in South Ossetia, there are still opportunities to find solutions on the local level. Establishment of the Commission on National Reconciliation in South Ossetia could substantially contribute to stabilization of the situation inside and around the republic and identifying long-term solutions for the peaceful settlement in the region. The Commission could be modeled on the famous example of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission1 and other similar experiences elsewhere with adaptation to the realities of South Ossetia.

In the case with South Ossetia there is a unique opportunity to include in the Commission not only the citizens of South Ossetia, but also relatively neutral and authoritative people from North Ossetia and international participants to provide a higher degree of impartiality. The Commission should not report to the president of South Ossetia, but rather to the supreme court or the parliament of the republic. Having an international expertise at hand while creating the Commission would be highly desirable, but if South Ossetia by itself is capable of creating such an institution on the firm foundations of law, it would also be a great achievement.

According to the 2001 census in Georgia proper, that is outside of the territory of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, there were nearly 40 thousand ethnic Ossetians. At the same time, even the most optimistic figures for the current population of South Ossetia do not exceed 40 thousand too. This means, that not just Dmitry Sanakoev's administration, but also another 40 thousand Ossetians chose Georgia as their home. President of South Ossetia and the Ossetian people as a whole should reckon with this fact. Politician that feels responsibility for the future of such a small people like the Ossetians, will never cut significant part of it off. It should be noted also, that ethnic Georgians comprise a sizeable percentage of Tskhinval, as well as South Ossetia as a whole too and Georgia should also care about their well-being and support.

Under the present circumstances it is hard to envisage finding a political settlement solution that would satisfy everyone to the same degree. Still there is an opportunity to reconcile according to the local traditions and assisted by international experience in this field. The Commission of National Reconciliation in South Ossetia could become the key instrument for the non-violent settlement in the region, despite the fact, that it would engage first of all in the reconciliation process between the pro-independence administration of Eduard Kokoity in South Ossetia and the pro-Georgian administration of Dmitry Sanakoev. If the members of Sanakoev's administration committed war crimes according to the UN specifications, then they will probably not be amnestied. But in order the authority of the Commission is recognized internationally, it should include members of international community, especially in laying its legal foundations.

The Commission should have clear working criteria in order to advance the goal of national reconciliation and avoid creating new tensions and standoffs by itself. Renunciation of violence, guarantees against unlawful persecutions, guarantees for participation in the political process should be among the principles of the Commission's activities. To achieve this, the activities of the Commission should be founded on the law, consensus principle and certainly not on the whims of select high profile officials. This can be attained, if the Commission's mechanism works court-like, just as it worked in the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Apart from that, in order to provide higher degree of reassurance and freedom of the Commission functioning, an international monitoring mission could be established. In addition to the national intraossetian reconciliation the Commission will also have a positive impact on the Ossetian-Georgian relations, because not only certain number of Ossetians, but also the majority of the Georgian population of South Ossetia supported Dmitry Sanakoev's administration. So through the reconciliation of Dmitry Sanakoev and the government of South Ossetia improvement of bilateral, Ossetian-Georgian relations, as well as return of Georgian refugees could be achieved.

The "Grand Exchange" between the government of Georgia and the government in Tkhinval could become an important element of the Commission. The essence of the exchange could be very straightforward: in return for allowing Dmitry Sanakoev and his supporters to the political scene of South Ossetia, Georgia signs legally binding agreement about non-use of force for resolving South Ossetian problem and lifts the restrictions for the activities of international organizations in the region. In case an agreement on "Grand Exchange" is reached, it will be very useful to have international participation in the process of signing this agreement and following it down the road. The logic of this exchange is, that those who want South Ossetia be part of Georgia get the space on the political scene of the republic, including seats in the parliament, for defending their point of view with political means. In response Georgia abandons the idea of using force in the region and stops international isolation of the republic, because the political mechanism of resolving the dispute is launched and there is no more need to amass military forces. New elections of the parliament of South Ossetia should be part of the agreement about "Grand Exchange". This time the elections should be held in presence of international observers and therefore would have much more legitimacy behind them, that those that took place in May 2009. South Ossetia would benefit from such a development abundantly. In the first place, this would relieve much of the tensions that are still around and indicate the good will of the republic that is ready to look for the solutions in a constructive way through negotiations. South Ossetia and its real needs would receive much more consideration not only in Russia, but also in other interested countries.

Establishing a competitive political system through simply allowing supporters of South Ossetian integration into Georgia to the political field of the republic would give a huge boost to the democratic development of the territory. On the one hand president of South Ossetia Eduard Kokoity maintains, that the vast majority of the republic are in favor of independence, so there is no immediate threat for the de-facto independence status of the republic. On the other hand president Mikheil Saakashvili argues, that democratic Georgia is much more attractive political development model than the one, existing in South Ossetia, so the supporters of Dmitry Sanakoev will also have a hope to persuade the voters of South Ossetia, that they will be better off as part of Georgia.

Population is the single most important factor, that defines the viability of South Ossetia as a separate entity, whether it is independent or not. Reconciliation could facilitate a significant increase of its population over relatively short period of time. Moreover, in the absence of reconciliation, there is practically no other resource to increase the population of the republic and provide the necessary means for normal functioning of the territory.

The project should attract Georgia, because it would significantly de-escalate the conflict. Georgian participation in the project would indicate its commitment to peaceful resolution of the problems not only in South Ossetia, but also in Abkhazia. Reduction of hostilities and tensions would not by itself lead to Tbilisi gaining control over South Ossetia or Abkhazia, but it would open the way for resuming political dialogue and invigorating mutually agreeable, non-violent solutions. Such an approach would strengthen Georgia's own security, limiting Russia's possibilities for meddling into Georgian affairs.

The best and the shortest way to achieve positive results for such a Commission would be the sponsorship, provided by the EU, the US, Russia and other interested parties. As the existing negotiations frameworks do not comply with the architecture of such a sponsorship, perhaps a new international negotiation and monitoring format should be established with participation of the EU, the U.S., Russia and perhaps Turkey. The sponsorship in this case would have been largely restricted to providing legal and other technical advice to make the Commission of National Reconciliation succeed and also for the monitoring and benchmarking of its results.

Sponsors could be motivated by the prospects of constructive cooperation over a highly contentious issue. Russia and the West would abandon confrontational rhetoric and exclude repeating another outbreak of the conflict in future, also influencing positively the overall political climate in South Caucasus. Russia would prove, that it is not a an aggressor, that is determined to subdue Georgia, but rather a country, that is ready to assist free and democratic development of its neighbors. The format of the Commission of National Reconciliation in South Ossetia would allow Russia to ensure its influence over the peace process in the region stays intact. The West, in its turn could show, that it is committed to contribute to the peaceful resolution of the tensions in South Caucasus without having to sacrifice either the relations with Russia or support for Georgia.

Participation in the establishing and functioning of the Commission would allow the West, without actually recognizing the independence of South Ossetia, contribute to making the situation in the region more predictable and legally acceptable.

The advantage of creating the Commission of National Reconciliation in South Ossetia is that, even though it would be a new institution in the region, it could also rely on the existing traditions of reconciliation. Besides everything else, such a solution would be very democratic, because the lower is the rank the party of the conflict occupies in the hierarchy of conflict parties, the more weight it has in the Commission creation.

Indeed, even if no one agrees with such a project, South Ossetia could potentially implement this project by itself, perhaps only its limited edition, still the gains it would get from it would be inarguable. Unilateral actions of South Ossetia would still contribute to decreasing the tensions in the region, improve internal and external climate in the republic and would not threaten anybody's interests, including the vital security interests of South Ossetia itself. If Georgia subscribes to South Ossetia's project, almost all of the goals of the project could be achieved, even without attracting outside sponsors. In its turn, Georgia could initiate such a project on its own, without waiting for South Ossetia's moves. This would also be a positive step, contributing to the peace process, even though less prolific.

South Ossetia arguably is the main interested party in this project. The republic has an opportunity with this project to launch the process of transition from it being the territory of contention between Georgia, the West, Russia to the territory of respectful and mutually beneficial cooperation between all the interested parties, that is equal to the real transition from war to lasting peace.

June 30, 2009

1The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa was established after abolition of apartheid regime in 1994. People that considered themselves victims of the regime could approach the Commission, but also the ones who were accused could defend themselves and receive amnesty. The Commission became one of the most important tools of democratization of the South African state.

Author: Valeriy Dzutsev; Source: for "Caucasian Knot"

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