South Ossetia - An Independent Nation?

The Ferocity of the Russian Offensive in Georgia Speaks Oceans About Any Respect for Territorial Integrity

News | Arthur Kennan | September 2008

There was a certain inevitability to what happened in Georgia last month.  The country’s efforts to exercise its lawful sovereignty over disputed parts of its territory by military means were never likely to succeed without very considerable external assistance, which in turn, was never likely to be forthcoming.

However, the Russian response by way of land and air invasion was characterised by a savage and punitive ferocity, which appalled most of the civilised world.  In the end, Russia called for international recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states.  Why and how has all this happened?

The full answer lies in centuries-old history of peoples, nations and states.  There are areas of the world that are confluences of cultures.  The Middle East, the Western Balkans, Kashmir and the Southern Caucasian Region are among the better known examples.  Unfortunately, these can be collisions of cultures, where the harmony of confluence gives way to bitter conflict and strife.  Such is the case of Georgia.

The history of the current conflict, although long and deep, dates most immediately from 1991 and the collapse of the Soviet Union.  At that time the Union of Soviet Social Republics (USSR) consisted of 15 Republics which together comprised one-sixth of the earth’s land surface.  All 15 Republics were built on a system of democratic centralism, so that all meaningful political power rested in the hands of the Politburo of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) in Moscow.

Three of the Republics lay to the South of the Caucasus Mountains: Georgia, to the West, traditionally an Orthodox Christian state; Armenia in the middle and to the South, with a largely Armenian Rite Catholic population; and Azerbaijan to the East with a largely Muslim population.  It’s hard not to hear echos of Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia in the former Yugoslavia in the potential for conflict. In fact, there is a ‘frozen conflict’ between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Not only did the USSR consist of 15 Republics, it also recognized more than 120 nationalities within the USSR.  This was expressed largely in cultural terms,  such as by language, dress, and customs.  A son of Georgia, Josip Dzhugashvili, who took the name of Stalin, resolved several internal conflicts by the physical movement of whole peoples within the great monolith of the USSR.  In recognition of  the many nationalities there was a number of subdivisions in some of the Republics.  These were called Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republics (ASSRs) or in smaller areas, Autonomous Oblasts (AOs).  An Oblast is similar to a Province in concept.

So, in 1990 the country was known as the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic with Tbilisi as its capital city. About 550kms long from Northwest to Southeast and about 150kms wide across its mid axis, Georgia is a relatively small country, but with clear subdivisions: To the Northwest was the Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR) of Abkhazia with its capital at Sukhumi on the Black Sea coast; to the Southwest the Adjarian ASSR with its capital, Batumi, also on the Black Sea and in the center, to the North, the South Ossetian Autonomous Oblast (AO) with Tskhinvali as its main town.  As long as all real power rested in Moscow, these subdivisions were of little consequence.  Indeed, autonomous in any real sense was quite a misnomer.

After the Soviet Union collapsed at the end of 1991, the Russian Federation was born and a host of newly independent states was rapidly recognized and welcomed into the world order. Territorial integrity was recognized, that could only be altered with the agreement of all the people of the State.

Therein lies the nub and the rub of the problem today.

The 80-year-old former Foreign Minister of the USSR and President of Georgia, Eduard Shevardnadze, reportedly commented recently that it was "too much, too soon."

Perhaps he was right. Almost immediately after independence, fighting broke out in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.  The United Nations established an Observer Mission to monitor a ceasefire and to assist in the steps towards peaceful conflict resolution in Abkhazia.

In the case of South Ossetia, a ceasefire agreement was signed in Sochi in June 1992. The agreement provided for the establishment of a joint peacekeeping force. This was to consist of three battalions, from the Russian Federation, Georgia and Ossetia. Checkpoints were established with the Georgian troops on one side, the Ossetians on the other and the Russians in the middle. A strategic point is the tunnel through the Caucasus linking South Ossetia with North Ossetia in the Russian Federation. This is under Russian control and was the access route for last month’s invasion. A joint Control Commission was to meet regularly to assess the ceasefire and review the situation.

The international community’s involvement was through the CSCE (Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe), the precursor of the OSCE, which is based in Vienna. At the meeting of the Council of Ministers in Rome in December 1993, it was decided that the CSCE may set up cooperative arrangements to ensure that the ‘role and functions’ of a third party military force in a conflict area were consistent with CSCE principles. These were described as respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity; consent of the parties to the conflict; impartiality; a multinational character; a clear mandate; transparency; a political process for conflict resolution and a plan for orderly withdrawal.

The relevance to South Ossetia is unmistakeable. On Mar. 29, 1994 the CSCE decided to establish a mission in Georgia, to ‘promote negotiations’ toward a political settlement, to monitor the joint peacekeeping forces, and to assess conformity with the CSCE principles decided in Rome.

The Rome decisions were not unusual and are standard requirements for international peacekeeping. But recent events would indicate that neither respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, nor impartiality have been characteristic of the Russian presence in South Ossetia.

Indeed, on several occasions it has seemed that the separatist objectives of South Ossetia have been actively fostered by Russia instead.  In last month’s war, the ferocity of air and ground strikes within Georgia and Russian claims that they were defending South Ossetians, who had become ‘Russian citizens’, speak oceans about any adherence to principles of respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity.

True colours have emerged in calls from the Russian parliament for international recognition of both Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states.  As of now, the Russian Federation on this issue is in a minority of one.  Pluralist societies exist successfully in many parts of the world; Georgia should be one of them.

South Ossetia – a landlocked state of 3,900 square kilometres and perhaps some 65,000 inhabitants – is unlikely to be able to flourish as an independent state in today’s world. There is much room for continued anxiety over its fate, and by extension for that of Georgia itself.  Present developments benefit neither.

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    the vienna review September 2008