Following the failure of its police operation in South Ossetia during the summer of 2004 and the strong international criticism it drew, the government of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has probed for other ways to peacefully regain control of the separatist region.
In May, Saakashvili appointed the 38-year-old Dmitri Sanakoyev, a former separatist militia leader, to head a provisional administration in South Ossetia -- officially called the Temporary Administrative Unit of South Ossetia. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Sanakoyev won an "alternative" South Ossetian presidential ballot late last year. At the same time, results of an "alternative" referendum showed that 94 percent of Sanakoyev's constituents favored a confederation arrangement with Tbilisi. In the rest of South Ossetia, an overwhelming majority re-elected separatist leader Eduard Kokoity, reiterating a desire to remain apart from Georgia. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Although Sanakoyev's power base is in a Tbilisi-administered part of the conflict zone that includes mostly ethnic Georgian villages, the Saakashvili administration says he and his People of South Ossetia For Peace (PSOP) movement have all legitimacy to negotiate a peace settlement on behalf of all Ossetians. The PSOP "reflects the will of the majority of the population, both Ossetian and Georgian," Georgian Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili told the Permanent Council of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) on June 14.
Sanakoyev and his team "are now effectively and legitimately engaged in conflict settlement and confidence-building activities," Bezhuashvili insisted, going on to urge the international community to seize what he called "a unique opportunity to improve the situation on the ground" and engage in a dialogue with the provisional administration of South Ossetia.
Georgia has earmarked roughly $7 million from its state budget to help Sanakoyev's alternative administration implement a number of economic and social projects aimed at winning the hearts and minds of the South Ossetians. But the main challenge for Tbilisi is to convince the world that its protégé can act as a power broker in the conflict-resolution process.
Russia, which has close ties to the separatist leadership in Tskhinvali, is openly hostile to Sanakoyev, with the Kremlin characterizing him as a product of the Georgian secret services.
With the noticeable exception of the United States, Western states remain cautious about Georgia's efforts to promote Sanakoyev. Bezhuashvili said it would be "a matter of time" before the international community assesses what he called "the new reality on the ground," and recognizes Sanakoyev as a stakeholder in the peace process. "Time should be given to the process in order to have tangible results. And we are patient, time works for us," he told reporters after addressing the OSCE Permanent Council.
Sanakoyev is in Brussels this week to meet with members of the European Parliament. On his departure from Tbilisi, he stated that his trip had been arranged by David Bakradze, the chair of the Georgian legislature's European Integration Committee, and a co-chair of the EU-Georgian Parliamentary Cooperation Committee.
In a report released on June 7, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) think tank noted that the European Union -- which is the largest contributor to the ongoing internationally funded Economic Rehabilitation Program for South Ossetia -- has yet to define a policy on Sanakoyev. The report indicates that Tbilisi-based Western diplomats have not been able to corroborate Georgian claims that Sanakoyev enjoys widespread support among South Ossetians.
Peter Semneby, the EU's special representative for the South Caucasus, in mid-June cautioned Georgia against over-personalizing the conflict-resolution process. "It is not a matter of creating institutions around a person. What is important is to create an institution that is based on the fundamental aspirations and desires of the population of South Ossetia," news reports quoted Semneby as saying during a visit to Tbilisi on June 11.
"The key here is not Sanakoyev or Kokoity, but whether Georgia is able, through its proposals, to reach out to all parts of Ossetian society, those living in Tskhinvali as well," the European diplomat added.
In comments aired on Georgia's First television channel in March, Semneby had said that the main priority for the international community was to promote dialogue between Tbilisi and the separatist leadership in Tskhinvali.
In Vienna, Bezhuashvili told reporters that "the EU special representative has met with Sanakoyev," but gave no further details. An EU official in Brussels told EurasiaNet that, at the instigation of the Georgian government, Semneby and Sanakoyev exchanged a few words on the sidelines of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly's Rose-Roth seminar that took place in Tbilisi in April. But he denied there had ever been any formal meeting between the two men. In January, Semneby refused to meet with Sanakoyev for reasons he did not specify.
OSCE officials have so far refrained from formally engaging Sanakoyev. The reasons for that are unclear, but likely stem from concerns that such a move might jeopardize the organization's conflict-resolution efforts.
The past few months have seen an increase in tension in the area - a trend widely perceived as stemming directly from Tbilisi's parallel efforts to promote South Ossetia's "alternative" government and sideline the separatist leadership.
Shortly after Sanakoyev addressed the Georgian parliament on May 11, separatist forces blocked the Transcaucasus Highway, forcing Tbilisi to open a bypass road from Kurta -- the Georgian-controlled conflict zone village, north of Tskhinvali, which serves as Sanakoyev's headquarters.
More recently, the separatist leadership blamed Georgia for water-supply disruptions that left Tskhinvali with almost no or little drinking water. It also accused Sanakoyev of establishing a paramilitary training camp at Kurta.
Georgia in turn charges that Moscow continues to secretly supply Tskhinvali with heavy military equipment and demands that international checkpoints be established at the Didi Gupta Bridge north of Tskhinvali, and at the Roki Tunnel that connects the Russian republic of North Ossetia to South Ossetia.
International observers believe the emergence of South Ossetia's "alternative" government has in the final analysis heightened the risks of military confrontation in the conflict zone. Even the U.S. mission to the OSCE on March 29 admitted that the rival November polls have resulted "in the decline of constructive engagement between the sides."
"The Georgian government's steps are non-violent and development-oriented, but their implementation is unilateral and so assertive that they are contributing to a perceptible and dangerous rise in tensions," the ICG wrote in its June 7 report.
Jean-Christophe Peuch is a Vienna-based freelance correspondent, who specializes in Caucasus- and Central Asia-related developments.