The cold war “by proxy” which pits the United States against Russia on the southern
slopes of the Caucasus becomes ever more complicated. The parallel votes which
took place on Sunday in the Georgian separatist region of South Ossetia have created
division which will make a negotiated solution to this “frozen” conflict, by now
dragging on for over fifteen years, still more difficult.
The independentist elections.
The voting organised by the authorities of the self-proclaimed Republic of South
Ossetia (recognised only by Russia) was held solely in the villages under their
control; that is, those with an Ossetian majority. The people voted for a referendum
on independence from Georgia and for the election of the new “president of the
republic”. According to the government of Tskhinvali (the “capital” of South Ossetia),
approximately 50 thousand people voted (90% of those entitled) and, obviously,
the referendum was carried with a landslide of “yes” votes and the leader of the
independence movement, Eduard Kokoity, was confirmed as president.
The United States, NATO and the European Union did not recognise the vote and
criticised the elections.
For Russia on the other hand, which openly supports the Ossetian separatists
and refers to the precedent set in Kosovo, the results of these elections can
not be ignored.
The unionist elections.
But, parallel with the elections for independence, the government of Tbilisi
organised an alternative vote in the villages of South Ossetia under their control;
that is, those with a Georgian majority. Here, an alternative referendum and the
election of an alternative president were voted on. The “Salvation Union of Ossetians”
NGO (linked to the Georgian secret services) declares that 42,000 people voted,
hence not only the population of Georgia, but also many Ossetians in disagreement
with the independentist authorities. The result was a crushing victory for the
“yes” vote for South Ossetia to be integrated into Georgia and the election of
Dimitri Sanakoev as “alternative president” recognised by the Georgian government.
Sanakoev will now form an “alternative government” of South Ossetia in the village
of Kurta, a few kilometres north-east of Tskhinvali. The Georgian president, Mikheil
Saakashvili, will recognise it as the sole legitimate government of the region,
thus weakening the political and diplomatic power of the South Ossetian separatist
authorities and demonstrating that in South Ossetia there are those who would
side with Russia, but there are also others who wish to remain in Georgia. The
risk, however, is that of a formal split in the region along ethnic lines.
Cold war by proxy.
According to the Kremlin, the new situation which has been created could even
bring about a new war between Georgians and Ossetians. The Russian Foreign Minister,
Sergei Lavrov, fears that the parallel pro-Georgian government which will be formed
in the disputed region will arm themselves with their own security apparatus and
that in this way “the already-existing divisions between Ossetians and Georgians
living in South Ossetia will lead to new armed confrontation.”
But, differently from 1991, when only the Ossetian separatists enjoyed external
support (from Russia; and for this reason they won the war), this time the Georgians
can count on the full political and military support of the United States and
NATO. The stakes are far higher than the status of South Ossetia: Washington is
competing with Moscow for hegemony in the southern Caucasus, a region criss-crossed
by oil and gas pipelines from the Caspian Sea and the northern access point to
the Middle East close to Iran.