30 January 2008, 09:49

Valery Dzutsev: Kosovo and duplex plan for peace settlement in Georgian-South Ossetian conflict

In the article by former "Caucasian Knot" reporter for North Ossetia Valery Dzutsev (currently he is Public Policy Master's program student at the University of Maryland) various geopolitical scenarios of situation development around unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia are discussed, including possible changes in relations between Georgia and Russia after expected international precedent of unilateral independence proclamation by the former Serb province of Kosovo.

Why Kosovo is important for Russian politics

Many western experts are perplexed by the fierce opposition that Russia indicates towards recognition of Kosovo's independence and the amounts of effort Russians invest into an attempt to postpone or even avert it. 29 January 2008 Financial Times reported, that Kosovo may declare its independence next week after the elections that are taking place in Serbia this weekend. FT quotes senior western diplomat as saying that if Serb conservative nationalist Nikolic comes to power in Serbia, "then no one in Europe will see any benefit in waiting any longer with the independence declaration". In the first half of January New York Times reported that US and Germany had reached an agreement to recognize Kosovo after it declares about its independence.

Russian preferences in Serbian elections are ambiguous. Initially nationalist Tomislav Nikolic was perceived as a pro-Russian candidate, whereas the acting president Boris Tadic was considered pro-Western. Accordingly Russian choices ran, but after signing Russian-Serbian agreement on energy cooperation with the acting Serbia president in Moscow 25 January and subsequent delay of the scheduled visit of opposition candidate to Moscow the situation significantly changed.

28 January 2008 in his speech before Russian State's Duma special representative of the Russian foreign ministry in the Balkans Alexander Botsan-Kharchenko stated that the ministry had prepared a pack of response measures in case of unilateral proclamation of Kosovo's independence.

Russian opposition to Kosovo's independence is pretty straightforward though, far from being too enigmatic. Recognition of Kosovo by the West would break the rules of the game that Russia has been playing with Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia for the past 15 years. Russians have wanted Abkhazia and South Ossetia remain inside Georgia, but not be integrated with it, so that they can have leverage on Georgian politics, prevent it from joining NATO and other western institutions, etc.

At the same time Russians have also been promising a lot to the Ossetians and the Abkhaz, namely to unify South Ossetia with North Ossetia and recognize Abkhazia.

Any decisive outcome from Georgian conflicts might potentially have negative implications for Russians. If South Ossetia and Abkhazia get reintegrated into Georgia, Russia will not be able to hinder Georgian progress into NATO. Also this will send a message to the Russian North Caucasus that Russia is getting weaker and soon might leave North Caucasus as well, which will trigger revival of rebels in the region that is fairly volatile even on its own.

If South Ossetia and Abkhazia get recognized by Russia and post soviet borders are changed, there is a risk that Russian Federation's own borders will change soon or later too and not necessarily toward their expansion. It is not accidental that Moscow is extremely wary about post soviet borders changes, because Russian Federation by itself is the most multiethnic among all ex-USSR countries and therefore potentially most prone to a break up along the ethnic lines. Besides this a hazardous war for Russia might start, if Georgia resolves to attack South Ossetia and Abkhazia after Russia recognizes them or incorporate them into Russian Federation. As Russian public will hardly tolerate Russians being killed outside of Russia so the only way of doing wars there would be to hire North Caucasians, but when the war is over no one knows where these North Caucasian forces will turn. As North Caucasus has been harboring separatist sentiment for a while now, it would be very perilous move for Russians to take.

So Russia has been balancing between the promises to the breakaway republics and the threats to Georgia fairly well in the past almost two decades (this policy in a way actually dates back to late Gorbachev's time). But now after Kosovo is recognized Russians will face a dilemma of also doing something decisive in the Caucasus, because the very fact that Russia will not undertake anything in response to Kosovo will be perceived in the Caucasus and in Russia proper as a sign of weakness. Both retreating or advancing from the current status quo will have profound effects for Russian positions in the region and probably beyond. To a great extent, thanks to the Putin's propagandist rhetoric about confronting the West and "Russia, rising from her knees" Kosovo issue became extremely sensitive for Russia.

So essentially all three possible reactions: move ahead and recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia, withdrawal from these regions or retain status quo bear serious risks for Russian politics in the Caucasus. Therefore Russians are in disarray as they see no agreeable option for themselves that is why they are so nervous about Kosovo.

In a way, Russians themselves set this trap, by drawing direct link between Kosovo and Georgian breakaway regions. The initial purpose was apparently to scare off the West from recognizing Kosovo and retaining status quo in Georgia as well, but it worked only for a while. Apart from that it was perhaps also a substitute for developing a full-fledged strategy in the Caucasus. Currently we may witness fairly awkward attempts by Russia to scare Georgians with Chechens dispatched to Abkhazia and South Ossetia. It looks like reminiscent of Russian strategy in the Caucasus in previous period - end of 80s-90s. When the idea was to use North Caucasus against Georgia and vice versa to use Georgia to put out North Caucasian resistance and try to establish Russia as a judge. It worked well in 90s, but nowadays, it does not look feasible anymore, because of many factors, not the least one because of bad experience Russia had with Chechen battalions after the war in Abkhazia in the beginning of 90s. They took most active part in the first Chechen war in 1994-1996 and unknown till war in Abkhazia Shamil Basaev after it became the most renown field commander and terrorist in Chechnya.

What Georgia can do about it

Whatever Russia undertakes, Georgia may act preemptively to offer yet another peace initiative regarding in particular post-conflict settlement in South Ossetia in order to avoid bloodshed and to advance mutual trust.

In recognition of the Ossetian people's wish to become united, Georgia should propose that South Ossetia has the right to join North Ossetia, provided Russia recognizes the same right for North Ossetia to secede from Russian Federation to form together with South Ossetia an independent, neutral Ossetian state.

If Russia is somewhat opposed to allowing North Ossetia to secede, South Ossetia should be given wide autonomy within Georgia under condition that when and if North Ossetia gains independence, Georgia will allow South Ossetia to join it. Russians may say that North Ossetia does not want to secede from Russian Federation, but as it is universally known Ossetians have not had this choice, so the most obvious response to this claim would be holding a referendum under international auspices.

The difference for Georgia between South Ossetia joining Russia or even being recognized by Russia on the one hand and having independent, neutral Ossetia on its borders on the other hand is obvious. If South Ossetia becomes an official continuation of Russia, as it is unofficially now, it will invariably continue to play destabilizing role and undermine Georgia's efforts to progress towards joining Western institutions. While if its independence is brought about with Georgian consent and underlying set of agreements, the latter can have strong influence on what kind of a state it is going to have in its neighborhood.

This proposal would suit practically each side of the conflict in South Ossetia whatever the outcome of this proposal is going to be. It is obvious after a proposal like this the ball will be on Russian Federation's side. So for simplicity reasons it is justifiable to split possible outcomes into two main categories: 1) Russia agrees to allow North Ossetia to have referendum on secession from Russian Federation to join South Ossetia and form an independent Ossetian state, and the majority votes in favor of it, 2) Russia does not allow to have a referendum.

Schematic grouping of interests and incentives would look like this:

Georgia

1) if Russia agrees, Georgia will become the creator and cosponsor of the Ossetian independent state and therefore the whole load of negative past in Ossetian-Georgians relations will quickly fade away. When fear and distrust disappear South Ossetian part of independent Ossetia will quickly resurrect and deepen close ties with Georgia. While currently South Ossetia is used by Russia as its outpost in Georgia to meddle in Georgian affairs in order to prevent it from joining western institutions, the then South Ossetia will be neutral and even friendly state for Georgia. Its neutrality can be ensured by the corresponding agreements and internationally managed inspections.

2) if Russia does not agree, Georgia will have demonstrated that it is not opposed principally to the Ossetian people's freedom and self-determination and that it is not really Georgia who is opposed to the independent Ossetia. The proposal will leave a hope for South Ossetia to acquire independence some time in future without having to take up arms and in the mean time South Ossetia will enjoy time of peaceful development within the Georgian state. Georgia will have nothing to do with South Ossetian independence question anymore and it will stop being contentious issue in Georgian-Ossetian relations. The possibility of the armed conflict in South Ossetia will be averted once and for all and the region will quickly be rehabilitated.

In either of the above cases resolution of South Ossetian conflict would be isolated from the Abkhazian and other examples, so it may not be replicated exactly, though it will surely have a positive impact on other conflicts as well because Georgia and other engaged parties will acquire more trustworthiness.

Russia

1. Russia will demonstrate it is a democratic country and is not afraid to allow its people to have a choice, including choice of secession. Russia will prove to the Russian people and international community that Russian Federation is not a country that is held together by power of the Russian military, police and secret services, but by free choice of the people, living in it. Also this will ultimately solve the issue for Russia how to react to Kosovo expected independence and set an example for peaceful resolution of other conflicts. As the result of the cooperation in peacebuilding process trust between Russia, Georgia and the West will increase. After or within the process of formation of independent Ossetia it will be much easier for Russia to solve the territorial dispute between North Ossetia and Ingushetia over Prigorodny district. In case of expansion to the south, North Ossetia would become much more inclined to give up some territories in disputed Prigorodny Region in favor of Ingushetia. It is well known that vast portion of refugees from Georgia made their new homes in the disputed parts of Prigorodny Region.

2. Russia will be seen as the main obstructer to the peaceful resolution of the South Ossetian conflict and "enemy of freedom". However, this will be entirely Russian responsibility, that does not depend on a third party.

South Ossetia

1. South Ossetia will not only get unification with North Ossetian part of Ossetian nation that it has been asking for, but also it will acquire friendly environment within Georgia and retain good relations with Russia as well. As both Georgia and Russia will be the creators and co-sponsors of independent Ossetia, Ossetia will retain good relations with both countries by definition. Apart from that cooperation on this issue between Russia and Georgia will positively affect their bilateral relations. Necessity to retain good relations with Russia and Georgia derives from geographical position of Ossetia. Economically Ossetia may thrive only if it becomes a transit route for international trade North-South.

2. South Ossetia will have Georgian and international guarantees not only for wide autonomy within Georgia, exceeding autonomy's level of North Ossetia in Russian Federation, free communication with North Ossetians, but also for unification with North Ossetia when and if the circumstances allow this. The uncertainly about the political status of the region will be over and so people who fled from South Ossetia will return and the economy will revive. The possibility of another armed conflict between Georgia and South Ossetia will be excluded once and for all regardless of the future events.

North Ossetia

1. North Ossetia will have a historical chance to peacefully gain independence and build a nation state. International transit, trade, tourism, small and mid-size business development and initial international assistance for rehabilitation of the conflict zone in South Ossetia could become foundations of the economical subsistence for Ossetia. It will be easier to have a lasting settlement with the Ingush over the disputed territory in Prigorodny Region. It will become possible to have some refugees from Georgia and South Ossetia currently living in North Ossetia to resettle in South Ossetia and relieve the refugee burden from the republic. Neutral status and open borders will result in good economic benefits for the newly founded country.

2. North Ossetia will still be able to relieve the refugee burden from the republic after situation stabilizes and life improves in South Ossetia. As the tension is over and the Georgian-Russian stand-off situation unlocked, the republic will benefit from its geographic position as the border land connecting Georgia and Russian regions.

Valery Dzutsev

30 January 2008

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