With all revolution-chasers focused on Russia's post-election turmoil, the prospects of a mini-revolution in the neighboring breakaway region of South Ossetia, a Russian protectorate, have gotten little international spotlight. But the enclave that Moscow vowed to love and cherish as a sovereign state after Russia's 2008 war with Georgia is in trouble and things may still get ugly.
Faced with calls to step down, the de facto president, Eduard Kokoity, has looked around his cabinet for possible scapegoats and found some. On December 7, he fired several high-ranking officials, including the de facto minister of education and the mayor of the capital, Tskhinvali, as an apparent sop to the protesters. More heads will roll soon, he claimed.
Come December 10, protesters in the discombobulated Caucasus region of South Ossetia plan to inaugurate their leader, Alla Jioyeva, as the territory's new de facto president with or without the consent of the current de facto president, longtime strongman Eduard Kokoity.
The protesters insist they already have a president so both Kokoity and the pick for his successor, de facto Emergency Situations Minister Anatoliy Bibolev, as well as their backers in the Kremlin, need to get used to it.
Despite any disillusionment with Moscow, though, Jioyeva’s supporters still hope that the Kremlin will help the tiny region step back from civil unrest. To prove that the protests are not anti-Moscow, the Jioyeva camp called on demonstrators to back Russia's ruling United Russia party in its December 4 parliamentary elections. (Most South Ossetians hold Russian passports.)
Still, the demonstrators are trying to put their eggs in other baskets, too. On December 4, they also asked that the United Nations and European Parliament help avert a political crisis in South Ossetia that may destabilize the wider region.
South Ossetia’s de facto regime keeps saying that a “color revolution” is not going to play out in the troubled enclave over its disputed de facto presidential election results, but events continue to be pretty, well, colorful.
But Jioyeva says that South Ossetians chose differently. She and her supporters are now baffled about why the current authorities and Russia refuse to accept her. “Why don’t you love me, Russia?” Jioyeva mused, adding that she is a “Russian by passport and in my spirit.”
The intramural tensions escalated after South Ossetia's de facto authorities cancelled results from the November 27 runoff for the region's de facto presidential poll; results that gave opposition candidate Alla Jioyeva the lead over establishment candidate Anatoliy Bibilov, the Kremlin favorite.
The outcome came as a serious humiliation for Moscow, which keeps South Ossetia under its political and military patronage, but failed to see its guy put in charge after two consecutive attempts.
Nevertheless, in times of trouble, South Ossetia can only turn to Moscow for help. The EU and US don’t see the region on the map and are telling it to go back to Georgia. Tbilisi demands that South Ossetia return to the Georgian fold and accept back the ethnic Georgian residents who fled during the 2008 war.
So, again it was Moscow that sent a representative to defuse tensions that are dangerous for locals and embarrassing for the Russians.
Jioyeva, though, emerged dissatisfied from today’s talks with Russian envoy Sergei Vinokurov. (Perhaps not surprisingly, given that the Kremlin had earlier supported the de facto Supreme Court's decision to throw out the runoff results and bar her from running again.) She said the talks will continue, but announced no plans to back off her claim to South Ossetia's de facto presidency.
A senior Russian official has blamed the U.S. and NATO for the "murder" of Russian peacekeepers during the 2008 war in South Ossetia. The official, Deputy Secretary of the Russian Security Council Vladimir Nazarov, made the comments at a conference in Moscow on Wednesday. From Itar-Tass (in Russian):
"The United States was directly involved in the murder of South Ossetia, Russian peacekeepers, soldiers and citizens," Nazarov said. "We have concrete evidence."
Unfortunately, he declined to present that evidence, so it's not really clear what he's talking about. His further comments suggest he may have been talking about a more indirect involvement, a general backing of Georgia:
“We would like to remind our NATO partners about the role the alliance has played in arming the Saakashvili regime, in pushing Georgia into that war and towards Georgia’s involvement in NATO in 2007 and 2008, at any cost.”
There was a rumor during the war that some African-American soldiers were involved in the war, a rumor furthered by RT. Is that what Nazarov is talking about? Is this some sort of smokescreen intended to divert attention from the embarrassing debacle unfolding now in Tskhinvali? We'll have to wait for him to present his evidence...
Amidst reports of gunfire, a homegrown controversy over breakaway South Ossetia's de facto presidential election on November 30 threatened to degenerate into violence.
To most of the outside world, the November 13 poll in South Ossetia was illegitimate to begin with, but it sparked a major power struggle. Alla Jioyeva, a onetime education minister, has claimed the presidency following a runoff that gave her over 56 percent of the vote.
But the Kremlin-backed candidate Anatoliy Bibilov, alleging funny business, wasn't buying it. Bibilov petitioned the region's de facto Supreme Court to throw out the results. On November 29, the court complied, with the de facto parliament setting a fresh election date in March 2012.
Jioyeva, however, went ahead and set up a "state council," and headed with her supporters (numbering in the high several hundreds, according to Russia's RIA Novosti) out into the streets of Tskhinvali, South Ossetia's capital, to protest the court's decision.
In response, the de facto government led by Eduard Kokoity accused Jioyeva of attempts to stage a "color revolution" -- an event portrayed within South Ossetia as the ultimate in dastardly deeds -- and threatened to take retaliatory measures. Apparently, those were limited to guards firing into the air as the Joiyeva crowd approached the de facto government headquarters, and tried to enter the region's de facto Central Election Commission.
The outcome of the fiercely contested de facto presidential election in breakaway South Ossetia is neither conclusive, nor legitimate as far as most of the world cares, but what is certain is that a female candidate has broken a glass ceiling there.
In a slap in the face for the region's macho-man-in-chief, de facto lame duck leader Eduard Kokoity, the early vote tally from South Ossetia's de facto November 27 run-off gave the lead to opposition candidate Alla Jioyeva, a former de facto education minister. Ahead of the poll, Kokoity had reasoned that a woman stands no chance of being elected in South Ossetia since, at the end of the day, the “Caucasus is the Caucasus."
But, at least at this stage, up to 57 percent of South Ossetia’s voters (minus the ethnic Georgian population expelled during the 2008 Russia-Georgia war) would beg to differ. Jioyeva’s strong showing is also an embarrassment for Moscow, South Ossetia’s big brother, which placed all its bets on her chief rival, the establishment candidate Anatoly Bibilov, the de facto emergency situations minister.
Yet another Kremlin favorite “fails to everyone’s dismay and to jeers from all observers, putting Russia in a highly unattractive light as a country, which despite all its territorial might, despite its status as a great power, cannot have the candidate it needs put into place in a tiny republic which 100 percent depends on Russia,” Pavel Svyatenkov, an analyst for Russia’s National Strategy Institute, commented to the Kommersant newspaper.
There aren't many issues on The Bug Pit's radar that have much political resonance in Washington (or elsewhere), but the Russia-Georgia war is by far the most significant. As someone who had already been following the region for a while before the 2008 war, it was dispiriting to see how, over the few days that that war lasted, how polarizing the issue became. Before the war, there wasn't a conservative or liberal way to see Georgia -- pretty much everyone in the small cohort of people who paid attention to the Caucasus, no matter what their political views, understood that Russia was aggressive, Georgia was reckless, and that could end badly there. But over the short duration of the war, people who had never previously paid attention to the region tried quickly to figure out what was going on, and the easiest way to do that is to make it a partisan issue. So conservatives said Russia started the war, liberals said Georgia started it, and then a couple of weeks after the shooting stopped, everyone more or less stopped thinking about it, and their opinions calcified at that. So when you write about the Georgia war, you expect a little more attention -- people in Washington's ears perk up, and they read to see whether you confirm their bias about what happened, or if you're a warmongering neocon/feckless stooge of the Kremlin.
Rice and Saakashvili at a July 2008 press conference in Tbilisi
Former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says Georgian President Saakashvili alienated potential NATO allies by "letting the Russians provoke him" into starting a war over South Ossetia. That's in her new book where, as with the controversy over Uzbekistan, she portrays herself as the voice of reason, in this case trying to contain the impulsive Saakashvili while also restraining the more bellicose members of her own administration.
She describes a meeting in Tbilisi with Saakashvili before the war broke out:
He's proud and can be impulsive, and we all worried that he might allow Moscow to provoke him to use force. In fact, he himself successfully provoked conflict in another breakaway part of the country, Adjara, and benefited when it had been reintegrated into Georgia through domestic and international pressure. The precedent, we feared, might make him think he could get away with a repeat performance in the territories located closer to Putin's beloved Sochi.
She urged Saakashvili to sign a non-use-of-force agreement, and he refused.
"Mr. President, whatever you do, don't let the Russians provoke you. You remember when President Bush said that Moscow would try to get you to do something stupid. And don't engage Russian military forces. No one will come to your aid, and you will lose," I said sternly.
Here's how she describes the start of the war, the evening of August 7:
Despite Georgia's unilateral ceasefire earlier in the day, South Ossetian rebel forces continued shelling ethnic Georgian villages in and around the capital, Tskhinvali. In response, the Georgian military commenced a heavy military offensive against the rebels..."
Separatist South Ossetia, best known as Russia and Georgia's 2008 battlefield, is undecided about its future. Its November 13 de facto presidential election failed to produce a clear de facto winner, meaning that the territory is headed for a run-off on November 27.
The showdown will be between de-facto Emergency Situations Minister Anatoly Bibilov, tagged as Moscow's man-for-the-job, and ex-de-facto Education Minister Alla Jioyeva, who lost her post in 2008 on what she argues were politically motivated corruption charges.
A de facto referendum led to Russian being named an official language of South Ossetia; outgoing strongman de facto leader Eduard Kokoity termed it a "thank you" to Moscow for its post-2008 support.
Predictably, Tbilisi and a number of Georgian non-governmental organizations dismissed the essentially Georgian-free election as farcical. To mark the occasion, Coalition for Justice, a group dedicated to bringing Georgian IDPs back to their homes in breakaway South Ossetia and Abkhazia, presented a satellite map of destroyed houses in formerly ethnic Georgian settlements in South Ossetia.
But for the residents of South Ossetia, the election, as the end of Kokoity's decade-long rule could make a lot of difference in terms of shaping the reality on the ground -- to merge with cousin North Ossetia in the Russian Federation or not to merge; that may well be the question.
With a cheer from Moscow, Bibilov has promoted "giving a start" to the merger "project": Jioyeva, in an interview with Ekho Moskvy, called the topic "premature," and emphasized instead the need "to strengthen our position as a separate state."