The once famous Ergneti swap meet, where otherwise antagonized Georgians and South Ossetians used to trade everything from bolts to refrigerators, may make a comeback. The possibility of the market’s return is already sparking hopes that Georgians and South Ossetians can smuggle their way to peace.
In 2004, the Georgian authorities closed down Ergneti, on the border between separatist South Ossetia and the neighboring region of Shida Kartli, to clamp down on the shadow economy. The closure ended rampant smuggling and led to a spike in tax revenues, but it also did away with the only major venue for peaceful interaction between people on either side of the conflict divide.
Separatist South Ossetia finally has a new de-facto president: Leonid Tibilov, a former KGB boss, took the oath of office on April 19.
It took four tumultuous takes to elect the new leader. Comrades-in-separatism Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh and Transnistria sent representatives to attend Tibilov’s inauguration in the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali. The highest-profile guest was Russian Duma Chairman Sergei Naryshkin. Also present was Nicaraguan Ambassador Luis Alberto Molina Quadra. Nicaragua and Venezuela, along with a couple of Pacific Islands, are the only states to follow Russia in recognizing the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Perhaps the most important attendee was Alla Jioyeva, an opposition presidential candidate, who bucked both local authorities and Kremlin in her bid for the South Ossetian leadership. The annulment of her reported victory came close to sparking civilian unrest. Since many South Ossetians still believe that she was the rightful winner of the popular vote, Jioyeva’s presence at the April 19 inauguration raises hopes that South Ossetia’s domestic political strife has blown over.
But Tibilov still needs to sort out complicated relations with Moscow and deal with the legacy of massive embezzlement of Russian aid. His pro-Russian stance and KGB past may not be enough to earn Tibilov the full trust of Moscow. “I’d like to assure leadership of the Russian Federation that we will do our best to stay the course chosen by our people, and this choice is connected to Russia,” Tibilov told Naryshkin. “We will be a reliable partner to Russia on its southern flanks.”
After a record-breaking number of de-facto presidential elections, embattled South Ossetia has finally got itself a de-facto president. Yet holding elections is proving to be a habit hard to kick. After four attempts to decide on a leader, now the breakaway region could be headed toward an early parliamentary election.
The current parliament, unrecognized by most of the world, is facing credibility issues at home as the majority of its 34 members are believed to be loyalists of former strongman Eduard Kokoity, a figure whose reputation for corruption is proving a not-so-endearing memory.
The new man at separatist South Ossetia's helm, ex-KGB chief Leonid Tibilov, may now need to upgrade the legislature to reinforce his own position with the territory's electorate, reports indicate.
Tibilov, of course, has described his victory at the polls as a victory shared by all the South Ossetian people, but, since quite a few voters disagree, he has also described the task ahead as building a sense of unity.
Jioyeva, who ended up in the hospital after a raid on her office, first vowed to fight to the end for the presidency, but now it looks like she is willing to entertain the option of participating in the early de-facto parliamentary vote, instead. Jioyeva and David Sanakoyev, the runner-up in de-facto election #2, are launching political parties to run for parliament.
Voting in de-facto presidential elections is becoming a regular pastime in the breakaway region of South Ossetia. After three attempts since November 2011 -- the latest, on March 25 -- to choose a successor to longtime strongman Eduard Kokoity, residents are now being asked to vote, yes, a fourth time on April 8.
"The people are tired of the election process . . . " candidate Leonid Tibilov, a former South Ossetian KGB boss who scooped up 42.48 percent of the latest de-facto vote, according to preliminary results, commented wryly to the Russian daily Kommersant. Without a clear majority, Tibilov will now face off against David Sanakoyev, the region's de-facto human rights ombudsman, with 24.58 percent of the vote.
Haunting the polls also, though, are the ghosts of (de-facto) elections past: Kokoity and opposition leader Alla Jioyeva, who claimed election in December 2011 and now is under house arrest in Tskhinvali after having attempted to proceed with her inauguration.
In interviews with Kommersant, both Tibilov and Sanakoyev took efforts to emphasize their distaste for or distance from Kokoity, and their fondness for the people's will; a sentiment no doubt enhanced after the large-scale public demonstrations that broke out in December in favor of Jioyeva.
Eight hundred million rubles -- part of the aid dished out by Moscow for post-war rehabilitation -- simply has disappeared, South Ossetia’s de-facto state auditors said last week. The who, where, when, why and how remain unknown. While eyes popped in Russia, South Ossetia’s de-facto official news agency reported the epic steal as casually as if a ballpoint pen had gone missing.
Whether a culprit will ever be found for Russia's missing millions, however, remains anybody's guess.
Gennady Ryabchenko, the de-facto official tasked to audit the breakaway territory's public finances, charged that prosecutors failed to act on reports of embezzlement. The de-facto Security Council requested the region’s tiny 34-seat parliament to probe into what's been going on exactly in the prosecutor's office.
The Russian military base in South Ossetia will soon include a battalion for Ossetians, which government officials say will act as a "forge" to build a capable military in the quasi-independent country, but which looks just as much like a blow against the territory's fragile sovereignty. The government news agency RES quotes Ministry of Defense of South Ossetia spokeswoman Galina Guchmazovа:
"The citizens of South Ossetia, who want to continue to serve in the army, now will be provided with opportunity to acquire new knowledge, learn military discipline and matériel at a level consistent with the Russian armed forces. - Ossetian battalion of the Russian military base will be the forge of professional military personnel for the Republic of South Ossetia."
Emphasis added. What does it mean, those who want to "continue to serve"? Does that imply that South Ossetia's own defense forces are to be discontinued?
The Georgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded quickly, connecting the creation of the battalion to a more general militarization of the territory and the Russian military threat:
[T]he Russian Federation is continuing to build up its military forces, to strengthen its military infrastructure and to deploy offensive weapons in Georgia's occupied regions. These regions have, in fact, been turned into large military bases and their inhabitants are either employed in the Russian military bases themselves or are serving with the Russian occupation troops, as most recently attested by the fact of the creation of the so-called "Ossetian battalion".
“People with guns and in masks barged in, destroying the doors, furniture …and tried to take me away by force,” said Jioyeva describing to Russian Reporter how riot police (OMON) allegedly stormed her office on February 9, the eve of her planned inauguration as de-facto president of the tiny, breakaway region.
“One grabbed me by the hands; others by the feet. They picked me up and dragged me like an old watermelon,” she told the website. Those in her office who tried to resist the OMON were beaten with rifle butts; some were arrested, she alleged. “I started to feel bad, from the humiliation… from everything that I saw, from the screams. I lost consciousness,” she said.
South Ossetian de-facto opposition leader Alla Jioyeva, who planned to hold a presidential inauguration ceremony today, has been hospitalized in critical condition after receiving a summons for questioning by prosecutors about an alleged attempt to seize power in the breakaway region.
Tensions remain high, with news reports about what exactly happened to Jioyeva -- and even whether or not she is still conscious -- largely a he-said-she-said affair.
Jioyeva's spokesperson, Violetta Dasayeva, told Ekho Moskvy radio that 100 armed riot police stormed Jioyeva's headquarters late on February 9, "destroyed" it, and struck the 61-year-old opposition leader on the back with a rifle butt, knocking her to the floor. Dasayeva, who said she was an eyewitness, claimed the police were intent on killing Jioyeva.
The territory's de-facto provisional government, which has run South Ossetia after two failed attempts to elect a de-facto president, denies that any violence was used against Jioyeva. Doctors from the Tskhinvali hospital also report no sign of any trauma; the official line is that Jioyeva suffered a stroke.
The opposition leader's health "deteriorated," de-facto officials say, after investigators presented her with a summons on the evening of February 9 for questioning by prosecutors about an alleged attempt to seize power -- an apparent reference to supporters' attempt to enter the de-facto Central Election Commission late last year to protest the annulment of de-facto run-off election results that indicated Jioyeva's victory at the polls in November 2011.
The Kremlin has warned breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia to beware of Georgians bearing gifts of travel documents. As part of its post-2008-war reintegration strategy, Tbilisi offered the separatists citizenship-blind identification documents. But Moscow says that those who take these papers will unwittingly become Georgians.
The so-called neutral travel documents do not carry Georgia's national symbols and do not specify the citizenship of their holders. But Moscow found a catch. “The ‘neutral passports’ are not neutral at all,” the Russian foreign ministry declared on February 8. “Georgia is indicated in the country code, while the issuing authority is the Georgian Ministry of Internal Affairs.”
Both breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia, for their part, say that they are not interested in any IDs printed by Tbilisi-- and whether or not any EU members promise to recognize them.
But, contrary to Russian fears or Georgian hopes, the documents are hardly an effective mechanism to lure the breakaways back into the Georgian fold.
Life in the Caucasus can often mean having the skills of a quick-change artist. Many Georgians themselves often hold both Russian and Georgian passports to make travel between the two estranged countries easier.
Warnings of possible bloodshed are coming from the politically discombobulated territory of South Ossetia as opposition leader Alla Jioyeva gets ready to inaugurate herself on February 10 as the region’s de-facto president and ignore plans to hold a repeat (de-facto) presidential election.
Describing Caucasians as "a hot-headed people," ex de-facto Defense Minister Anatoly Barankevich, a Jioyeva ally, warned that the inauguration “could lead to a civil war," an event "that will affect the entire Caucasus and even Russia," Kavkazsky Uzel reports.
But, so far, Jioyeva, who has the ice-cold determination to become South Ossetia's de-facto leader, in keeping with the apparent results of a 2011 run-off (de-facto) election, is not to be swayed. She says that the inauguration will take place with or without the interim de-facto government’s support. The de-facto government , for its part, wants to hold a third run-off presidential election on March 25.
The only international effort to defuse the tensions has come from Moscow, which recognizes the territory as a state independent from Georgia, but, with two competing centers of power now in South Ossetia, it's hard to argue that Russia's self-promoted skills as a crisis manager have amounted to much.