No End in Sight to Tskhinvali Tug of War

30 November 2006
Self proclaimed independent territories, such as South Ossetia, should opt for something more feasible than complete independence, says Kagarlitsky.

Catching up on the news over the weekend on the Internet, I came across a report about the "alternative" leader of South Ossetia, Dmitry Sanakoyev, who had condemned the policies of the region's "official" president, Eduard Kokoity.

No country in the world -- Russia included -- has recognized South Ossetia's self-proclaimed independence, and now it turns out that the region has two presidents to boot. Georgia doesn't recognize either one, and Moscow, while maintaining good relations with Kokoity, hasn't gone so far as to recognize him as the head of a sovereign state.

Sanakoyev's claim to power would appear comical if not for the fact that the Kokoity's legitimacy is also questionable at best. He was certainly not elected in a free and fair election. Candidates who supported unification with Tbilisi were not allowed to run, and there was no open debate or competition between political rivals.

At first glance, South Ossetia -- like the self-proclaimed Transdnestr republic in Moldova -- seems a throwback to the Soviet era: The political process is strictly controlled, and in the absence of any real choice, elections routinely end in landslide victories.

This similarity is superficial, however, because the real system of rule in South Ossetia is hardly Soviet. The ruling groups long ago crossed over into business, privatizing everything of value to their own and their partners' benefit. Decisions of state are all in the family. This system more closely resembles the feudal order, in which the powerful lord demonstrates his independence from the weak king by disposing of his lands and subjects as he sees fit.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili is also less like a modern political leader than a medieval monarch. Having inherited a patchwork state, he has tried to turn it into something resembling a unified whole, although the unification of the country is conceived exclusively in terms of securing recognition of the lawful ruler's authority.

Abkhazia is the exception. Free elections have been held in the region, and an opposition candidate even came out on top. The vote nearly ended in violence, but the parties have managed to settle their differences and govern together.

It is hard to imagine Georgia or Moldova restoring their territorial integrity any time soon. Saakashvili and Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin have little in common with Louis XI. Then again, President Vladimir Putin is no Catherine the Great. Nationalist pundits are therefore naive to hope that Russia will begin rebuilding its empire by annexing these regions.

Disputes of this nature can go unresolved for decades. In 40 years, no European country has recognized the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, although Turkey, unlike Russia, established diplomatic relations with the region.

For many years, the Aland Islands tried to break away from Finland to join Sweden. And unlike South Ossetia, they had a real vote on the issue. Europe never acceded to this, however, and Sweden made no attempt to seize Finnish territory. The islands took their revenge by refusing to join the European Union as part of Finland.

Territorial disputes are resolved either on the basis of international law or by force. None of the participants in the South Ossetian conflict today possesses sufficient military strength or legitimacy to impose its will on the other side. Negotiations are needed. But what would they yield?

The examples of the Aland Islands and Cyprus show the possibilities for unrecognized territories: They either stake out as much autonomy as possible and remain part of the country they had sought to leave, or the dispute simply festers.

It's not hard to predict which option South Ossetia will choose, because its rulers don't really have a problem with Georgia. The current state of affairs suits them just fine.

Originally published by The Moscow Times (Copyright 2006)