- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 5, 2004

Georgia’s President Mikheil Saakashvili is in town seeking U.S. help to deal with the Russian-backed breakaway province of South Ossetia. He is counting on Washington because of its strong record of support for Georgian sovereignty. Mr. Saakashvili should go home with American backing for South Ossetia’s peaceful return to Georgian administration under the rule of law that protects all citizens.

A tad smaller than Rhode Island, with perhaps 70,000 remaining residents, South Ossetia lies on the south slope of the Caucasus Mountains, across from the Russian Autonomous Republic of North Ossetia.AstheSovietUnion disintegrated in the early 1990s, ethnic violence drove Georgians and Ossetes alike from the region. South Ossetia emerged from a 1992 cease-fire as a de facto independent — but altogether unrecognized — statelet, little more than a smugglers’ haven propped up by Russia.

The United States shares many of Georgia’s interests in changing this situation. Stability in the Caucasus is vital to the East-West energy corridor, the opening of Central Asia and U.S. access to strategic points in a volatile part of the world. Georgia’s continued modernization is key to Caucasus stability. But Georgia cannot build its democracy, strengthen the rule of law, develop its economy and move toward NATO and the European Union so long as it is rent by separatist conflicts.

Moreover, because unrecognized separatist territories are havens for crime, drugs, guns and maybe terrorists, we should work to bring them under the laws of recognized states. This should be in Russia’s interest, too, although Moscow does not appear to understand this. Instability in the South Caucasus could backfire on Russia, stoking the crisis it already has in the North Caucasus, which is centered in Chechnya and spreading.

No doubt with similar thoughts in mind, Mr. Saakashvili began in the late spring and early summer to force the issue by restoring aspects of Georgian governance to bits of the region, restarting bus and train service, paying back pensions and delivering humanitarian aid to beleaguered villages.

But the ensuing weeks were also pocked by paramilitary skirmishes, roadblocks, Georgian interception of Russian arms disproportionate to legitimate peacekeeping missions (reportedly 160 helicopter-borne missiles) and South Ossetian hostage-taking. Meanwhile, Russian Cossacks and so-called volunteer fighters from Abkhazia and Transdniestria — Russian-backed separatist regions of Georgia and Moldova— transited Russia into South Ossetia and reportedly conducted military exercises with South Ossetian forces.

Then, the July 15 Intermediate Agreement dampened tension. Georgia agreed to withdraw some of its forces deployed to the region, and Russia agreed to see the Cossacks and other volunteers out. But that agreement will fail for two reasons. First, it does not establish any kind of check on traffic through the Roki Tunnel, the sole route into South Ossetia from Russia. Second, it leaves South Ossetian militias free to operate in the Java district, a critical area on the road between Roki and Tskhinvali, South Ossetia’s capital. These omissions point straight to the underlying problem: Russia, lamenting lost empire and resenting Georgia’s Western tilt, uses the diplomatic system to keep Georgia on edge.

The Intermediate Agreement was negotiated in the Joint Control Commission, established by the 1992 cease-fire, comprised of Georgia, Russia, North Ossetia and South Ossetia — a permanent three-to-one margin against Georgia. On the ground, 500 peacekeeping troops are permitted to each of the four sides. Russia controls its contingent as well as North Ossetia’s, and a Russian colonel commands South Ossetia’s military. Such arrangements ensure that nothing will change.

The United States should do two things. First, we must tell Russia unequivocally to back off South Ossetia. Second, Washington should invite Moscow and Tbilisi to work with us to expand the role of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in South Ossetia. OSCE could establish an international checkpoint at the southern end of the Roki Tunnel, or at both ends, if Russia is willing. OSCE also could supervise internationalization and professionalization of a peacekeeping force with a mandate expanded to cover all of South Ossetia.

If these tasks are accomplished, Georgia’s elected president could work directly with the people of South Ossetia toward their return to Georgian administration, with safeguards for the rights and legitimate interests of all. Washington should welcome Mr. Saakashvili, listen and then act on South Ossetia.

David J. Smith is chief operating officer of the National Institute for Public Policy and chairman of the Georgia Forum. He has just returned from Georgia.

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