Georgia Made South Ossetians 'Separatists in Spite of Themselves'
by Paul Goble
series: Crisis in the Caucasus - 2008
The Russian / Georgian Conflict and Its Impact on Azerbaijan
Window on Eurasia: Original
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. http://www.fondsk.ru/article.php?id=1629
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 insists, "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 event, 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
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
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