Georgia is stepping up overtures to a so-called "alternative" government established last year in the breakaway territory of South Ossetia.
At least publicly, Georgian government officials initially kept their distance from Dmitri Sanakoyev, who last year declared himself "president" of South Ossetia after a poll organized in Georgian-controlled enclaves in the breakaway territory. [For details, see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The separatist authorities in the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali, who won a de facto independence after a war with Georgia in the early 1990s, favor joining the Russian autonomous republic of North Ossetia.
But over the last several weeks, Sanakoyev has been increasingly embraced by Tbilisi officials. Sanakoyev conspicuously appeared at a North Atlantic Treaty Organization conference in Tbilisi on April 20. A group of several members of the Georgian parliament visited May 3, followed the next day by Parliament Speaker Nino Burjanadze.
On May 10, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili appointed Sanakoyev head of a "provisional administrative entity" in Georgian-controlled South Ossetia. The next day, the one-time separatist fighter addressed Georgia's parliament.
In his May 11 speech, delivered in Ossetian, Sanakoyev, a former defense minister and prime minister of the breakaway Republic of South Ossetia, acknowledged his role in the territory's struggle for independence from Georgia, but assured Georgian parliamentarians that "we all have understood that armed confrontation brought nothing but misfortune."
"There is only one solution direct dialogue between the Georgian and Ossetian peoples, the neutralization of external and internal destructive forces and their replacement with the effective and healthy support of the international democratic community," read the English-language text of Sankoyev's speech released by his office.
Georgian officials have been pushing foreign journalists to speak to Sanakoyev, and are pressuring the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which monitors the peacekeepers in South Ossetia, to treat Sanakoyev's government as a legitimate interlocutor.
This has given rise to speculation that Tbilisi is setting up Sanakoyev's headquarters in the Georgian-controlled village of Kurta as an official government-in-exile, as it did last year with the establishment of a Tbilisi-loyal government in the Upper Kodori Gorge, a strip of breakaway Abkhazia still controlled by Georgia.
But Sanakoyev denied that is the plan. "It's not my intention to be part of the Georgian government," he said in an interview with EurasiaNet before his May 10 appointment.
Later, when Georgia can hold elections across all of South Ossetia, a new government for the autonomous republic will be elected, he said. Of course, that will require the government now in Tskhinvali to cooperate a virtual impossibility or to cease to exist.
On the day of Sanakoyev's speech to parliament, South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoiti ordered roads to Georgian villages in South Ossetian-controlled territory closed until Georgia ended Sanakoyev's "puppet" administration; most roads have since been reopened.
Sanakoyev claims that the Kokoiti government will crumble as soon as Russia decides to withdraw its support for Tskhinvali. "Russia will change its policy toward South Ossetia because Russia needs its international image more than it needs South Ossetia," he said.
To date, however, Moscow has refused all contact with Sanakoyev. He acknowledged that his popularity in South Ossetia is also not strong. "We've taken some brave steps that the Ossetian people don't understand, but in time they will."
Officials in Tskhinvali, as well as many independent observers, believe that Georgia engineered Sanakoyev's rise to influence from the beginning.
"Sanakoyev didn't start independently. This was a plan hatched in Georgia, by [Interior Minister Vano] Merabishvili," said Boris Chochiyev, who represents South Ossetia in quadripartite talks about the conflict. On May 16, Chochiyev was dismissed from his position as de facto deputy prime minister and appointed head of a Ministry of Special Affairs.
"I don't exclude the possibility that they might use Kurta like Kodori in Abkhazia," added Chochiyev in an earlier interview with EurasiaNet. "In the long run, their aim is to politically isolate us. This is a game that will last for several months."
Some analysts questioned the efficacy of this approach, noting that Sanakoyev is not well regarded in Georgia and perceived as corrupt and a traitor among ordinary residents of Tskhinvali. "How do you now reach out to the other side to reconcile with them? [The Georgian government] says this will spread to all of South Ossetia, but how, nobody knows," said Giorgi Khutsishvili, head of the Tbilisi-based International Center on Conflict and Negotiation.
Georgia is undertaking a program of development projects to try to consolidate its control over Kurta and possibly build support among Ossetians living in Tskhinvali-controlled territory. Georgia is financing two new gyms, a theater, a hospital and a hotel in the Kurta area although the much-discussed discotheque that Saakashvili said he would build to bring together Georgian and Ossetian youth has yet to materialize.
Residents in Kurta were enthusiastic about the new projects, but unsure what impact they might have. "We don't want war anymore, so let's try this and see what happens," said one Georgian man working on the construction of one of the gyms, who declined to give his name. People in Tskhinvali-controlled parts of South Ossetia "want this but they can't say it," he said. "They're poisoned by propaganda from the regime."
Joshua Kucera is a Washington, DC,-based freelance writer who specializes in security issues.