´South Ossetia: The Burden of Recognition´, crisisgroup

South Ossetia: The Burden of Recognition

Europe Report Nº205 7 Jun 2010 crisisgroup

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South Ossetia is no closer to genuine independence now than in August 2008, when Russia went to war with Georgia and extended recognition. The small, rural territory lacks even true political, economic or military autonomy. Moscow staffs over half the government, donates 99 per cent of the budget and provides security. South Ossetians themselves often urge integration into the Russian Federation, and their entity’s situation closely mirrors that of Russia’s North Caucasus republics. Regardless of the slow pace of post-conflict reconstruction, extensive high-level corruption and dire socio-economic indicators, there is little interest in closer ties with Georgia. Moscow has not kept important ceasefire commitments, and some 20,000 ethnic Georgians from the region remain forcibly displaced. At a minimum, Russians, Ossetians and Georgians need to begin addressing the local population’s basic needs by focusing on creating freedom of movement and economic and humanitarian links without status preconditions.

The war dealt a heavy physical, economic, demographic and political blow to South Ossetia. The permanent population had been shrinking since the early 1990s and now is unlikely to be much more than 30,000. The $840 million Russia has contributed in rehabilitation assistance and budgetary support has not significantly improved local conditions. With its traditional trading routes to the rest of Georgia closed, the small Ossetian economy has been reduced to little more than a service provider for the Russian military and construction personnel. Other than the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), no international humanitarian, development or monitoring organisation operates in the region; dependent on a single unreliable road to Russia, the inhabitants are isolated.

Claims and counterclaims about misappropriation of reconstruction funds complicate the relationship between the de facto president, Eduard Kokoity, and his Russian prime minister and undermine internal cohesion. While Russia controls decision-making in several key spheres, such as the border, public order and external relations, it has allowed South Ossetian elites a degree of manoeuvre on such internal matters as rehabilitation, reconstruction, education and local justice. Preoccupied with security threats on its own North Caucasus territory, Moscow has preferred to work with Kokoity and his entourage, who have shown unshakeable loyalty, rather than try a different leadership.


All but four countries, including Russia, continue to recognise South Ossetia as part of Georgia, and Ossetians and Georgians cannot avoid addressing common problems much longer. Lack of freedom of movement and detentions of people trying to cross the administrative boundary line (ABL) spoil the lives of all, regardless of ethnicity and risk increasing tensions. The EU monitoring mission (EUMM) in Georgia could play a vital role in promoting stability and acting as a deterrent to further military action, but with Russia and South Ossetia resisting its access, its effectiveness and response capability is limited.

Periodic talks in Geneva bring Russia, Georgia and representatives from South Ossetia and Abkhazia together but are bogged down over the inability to conclude an agreement on the non-use of force. Much less effort has been made to initiate incremental, practical measures that would address humanitarian needs. Positions on status are irreconcilable for the present and should be set aside. The immediate focus instead should be on securing freedom of movement for the local population and humanitarian and development organisations, which all parties are blocking to various degrees. The South Ossetians should be pressed to respect the right to return of ethnic Georgians, while Tbilisi should be more supportive of the few who either stayed in South Ossetia or have been able to go home. The Ossetians should lift their conditionality on the work of the joint Incident Prevention and Response Mechanism (IPRM) that has been created to deal with day-to-day issues along the ABL.


It will take a long time to rebuild any trust between the South Ossetians and Georgians, but a start is needed on steps that can make the confrontation more bearable for the people and less risky for regional stability.


To All Sides:

1. Agree urgently, without posing status or other political preconditions, on basic cooperation mechanisms and implementation modalities to ensure:

a) movement across the administrative boundary line (ABL) for local inhabitants and humanitarian and developmental organisations;

b) rights to property and return; and

c) economic freedom.

To the Government of the Russian Federation:

2. Implement fully the ceasefire agreements, which oblige Russia to reduce troop levels to those mandated before 8 August 2008, withdraw from previously unoccupied areas and allow access for international monitoring and humanitarian assistance missions to South Ossetia, particularly the EU Monitoring Mission (EUMM).

3. Encourage the South Ossetian authorities to engage with the Georgian government to lower tensions and prevent incidents in the conflict zone and to participate in the joint IPRM.

4. Ensure that the right of return for Georgian internally displaced persons (IDPs) is recognised; facilitate their return to South Ossetia; and monitor and prevent human rights violations in South Ossetia.

5. Put strict controls on all transfers from the Russian federal budget to South Ossetia to limit corruption.

To the Government of Georgia:

6. Define, publicise and implement a generous policy on movement across the ABL for all residents, while continuing both to refrain from arbitrary detention of South Ossetian residents and to cooperate with international bodies (Council of Europe, ICRC, EUMM) in investigating cases of missing and detained people.  

7. Facilitate small-scale economic activity across the ABL; encourage the EU, UN, Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and other international bodies to develop initiatives to loosen South Ossetian dependence on Russia; and apply the Law on Occupied Territories to support these activities in line with the new State Strategy on Engagement through Cooperation.  

To the Authorities in South Ossetia:

8. Refrain from arbitrary detentions of Georgian citizens and violation of their freedom of movement; release those detained since the August 2008 war; and cooperate with international mediators in investigating cases of missing and detained people.

9. Recognise the rights of Georgian IDPs and facilitate their step-by-step return.

10. Allow the EUMM and other international officials and organisations full access to South Ossetia. 

11. Discuss day-to-day issues and security with Georgia; facilitate small-scale economic and social activities across the ABL; and resume participation in the joint IPRM. 

12. Put priority on eradicating high-level corruption; pursue those who embezzle reconstruction assistance; and allow greater freedom for civil society initiatives. 

To the EU, OSCE, Council of Europe and other international actors:

13. Engage with Russian authorities in support of full implementation of the 2008 ceasefire agreements.

14. Continue or renew contacts with authorities and civil society groups in South Ossetia; support dialogue between Georgian and South Ossetian authorities, as well as Georgian and South Ossetian civil society groups.


15. Continue efforts to monitor the human rights situation, with a special focus on freedom of movement, arbitrary detentions and political and socio-economic rights; and advocate the implementation of international norms and principles, including the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement.


Tskhinvali/Tbilisi/Istanbul/Moscow/Brussels, 7 June 2010