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South Ossetia - Recent Developments

Eduard Kokoity [Kokoiti or Kokoev in Russian] was elected on 06 December 2001 President of the unrecognized republic of South Ossetia. The main reason Kokoity won the presidential election was that he was suddenly supported by the Tedeyev clan, one of the most powerful families in South-Ossetia. Albert Tedeyev and his brother Jambulat financed his electoral campaign. After Kokoity was elected president, members of the Tedeyev group took over responsibility for the republic's customs service and for freight traffic along the Transcaucasian highway.

South Ossetia is a mountainous inland district. Its main asset is a tunnel through the mountains linked to the Russian region of North Ossetia, which Georgian officials say is used for smuggling guns, drugs and counterfeit $100 bills. According to several sources, the financial resources of South Ossetian President Eduard Kokoity were linked to the criminal world drug and gun trafficking.

Economic issues are crucial. Illegal trade across cease-fire lines is considerable, creating incentives for the preservation of the status quo. Opportunities for enduring solutions will increase with economic development. Corruption is a serious impediment on all sides of the conflict. Many in Russia, Georgia, and South Ossetia have an economic interest in the preservation of the status quo. Initially, cooperation between criminal organizations in Georgia and South Ossetia was greater than that between respective law enforcement agencies, but the situation has improved.

On 01 July 2003 Eduard Kokoity moved to stamp his authority on the breakaway republic after a dramatic and sudden clearout of almost all his security chiefs. He ordered the disbanding of the defence ministry's intelligence department and of the security department in charge of escorting road cargoes. The president also took charge of the customs department, which is South Ossetia's main source of revenue. All of the people who were fired were members of the Tedeyev group.

By 2003, contraband trade had become a serious problem in Georgia. The trade of contraband through the Georgian routes of Abkhazia and South Ossetia became worse due to the fact that it was closely connected to the problem of separatism, unresolved armed conflicts, violence in the regions, and transparency of borders. The conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia had gradually been transformed into uncontrolled territories known as crime zones. The smuggling networks established in Abkhazia and South Ossetia increased the crime rate, created corrupt economic interests and contributed to the existing political status quo and foreign conflicts. The main reasons for smuggling in these regions are institutional weakness and corruption in law enforcement bodies, and the absence of initiative among previous leaders of the supreme executive branch of the Government of Georgia.

The Pankisi Gorge is an important center of narcotics activity in the former Soviet republics of the Caucasus, where keen competition for the drug market does not seem to include onsite Russian groups. The gorge is a sparsely populated, 12-mile valley in a remote mountainous region of northeastern Georgia, adjacent to the Chechen Republic of Russia and east of the South Ossetian Autonomous Region of Georgia. The latter jurisdiction has an unresolved, eleven-year claim to self-determination. Inhabitants of the Pankisi area include indigenous Chechens, called Kists, and Ossetians. Refugees from Chechnya have exacerbated existing ethnic tensions by pushing the majority of Ossetians out. The refugee community in Pankisi reportedly includes narcotics dealers who have used connections in Chechnya to establish trafficking routes into Pankisi.

Because of its geographic location and topography, the gorge received international attention as a center of drug and arms smuggling, as a point of controversy among ethnic groups, and as a foothold of Chechen guerrillas, who have become involved in all the other activities in the gorge. The U.S. Department of State characterized the Pankisi region as a central point for "repackaging" of drugs originating in Afghanistan and moving from South Ossetia and Azerbaijan to markets in Georgia.

The cessation of hostilities brought on by the Sochi Agreement held fast into 2004. At that point, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze had been replaced by Mikheil Saakashvili, who expressed a renewed interest in reintegrating Georgia's separatist regions. In keeping with this policy, the Georgian Government placed a special emphasis on the regulation and monitoring of trade within and through South Ossetia, closing down a particularly large South Ossetian market which had been used for unregulated trade. In June 2004, tensions began to rise as the Georgian authorities strengthened their efforts against smuggling in the region. Hostage takings, shootouts and occasional bombings left dozens dead and wounded. South Ossetian forces retaliated by closing highways and detaining Georgian troops within South Ossetian borders. Tensions between the sides escalated, and exchanges of mortar fire in late July and August 2004 killed dozens.

A cease-fire signed by the parties in August of 2004 ended the violence and led to some demobilization, but the situation remained unsettled. South Ossetian President Eduard Kokoity met in November of 2004 with Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania. During the meeting, both sides expressed concern at the violence and reaffirmed their interest in a peaceful resolution, before reaching a series of agreements designed to strengthen relations between the two sides and to demilitarize the zone of conflict.

The United States welcomed Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's proposal in January 2005 for an autonomous status within Georgia for South Ossetia On 27 October 2005 Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli presented the government of Georgia's plan for resolution of the South Ossetian conflict to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Vienna, Austria. Georgia requested support for a new international diplomatic framework including the OSCE, the European Union, the United States and Russia. The peace plan proposed by Georgia was endorsed by the OSCE Ministerial Council in Ljubljana, Slovenia, in December 2005.

In November 2005 the Georgian Interior Ministry accused South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoity and his government members of patronizing criminal groups engaged in smuggling, kidnappings, arms trafficking and blamed Russian peacekeeping forces stationed in the conflict zone of providing arms to the South Ossetian militia groups. The Georgian Interior Ministry posted on its official web-site on 26 November 2005 a diagram under the name "Criminal Regime of the So-Called South Ossetian Authorities." At the top of the diagram there was a photo of South Ossetian Leader Eduard Kokoity with the caption: "racketeering, smuggling, kidnappings, corruption, persecution of political opponents." South Ossetian officials, as well as Russian peacekeepers, have already dismissed these allegations as "absurd."

Georgians and South Ossetians fought in September 2006. According to news reports, a helicopter flying over the Georgian-Ossetian conflict zone with Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili on board was fired upon by South Ossetian militia forces on September 3 and was forced to make an emergency landing. Five days later, it was reported that three South Ossetian militia members and one Georgian police officer died in a firefight in the South Ossetian conflict zone.

When Kokoity staged an independence referendum and presidential election in November 2006, Tbilisi responded with polls of its own in South Ossetian districts it controls. The result was the election of two presidents - Kokoity in Tskhinvali's polls and, in Tbilisi's, "Dmitri" Igor Viktorovich Sanakoyev, a former South Ossetian prime minister who favored a deal with Saakashvili. The outcome gave Tbilisi the option of trying to undermine Kokoity by running a parallel administration.

In November 2006 the United States joined the international community in rejecting a referendum and self-proclaimed presidential election scheduled for November 12 in Georgia's separatist region of South Ossetia. "The U.S. will not recognize the 'independence referendum' and concurrent so-called 'presidential' elections," Ambassador Julie Finley, U.S. envoy to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), said 09 November 2006. "As the international community has made clear, South Ossetia is a part of Georgia," Finley told the OSCE's Permanent Council in Vienna, Austria.

In September 2004, Georgian President Saakashvili had put forth a proposal for an autonomous status for South Ossetia within Georgia in a speech to the United Nations, which received wide praise within the international community. However, with the de facto authorities in Tskhinvali expressing little interest in the proposal, the Georgian Government gradually turned its attention to the parallel de facto administration emerging under the leadership of Dmitri Sanakoyev, an ethnic Ossetian who advocated the pursuit of South Ossetian autonomy within the state of Georgia. In April 2007, this parallel administration received formal Georgian backing and was transformed into the Provisional Administrative Unit for South Ossetia, with its base of operations in Kurta, South Ossetia.

The appointment of Mr. Sanakoyev as Head of the temporary administrative unit for South Ossetia was followed by a statement by Mr. Kokoity that he would take "all necessary measures" to remove Mr. Sanakoyev's "self declared government". The Trans-Caucasus highway was closed by the order of Mr. Kokoity, and there were heavy exchanges of fire throughout the weekend. In addition, there were movements of South Ossetian armed units and sightings of night time truck convoys.

The South Ossetian government was not entirely independent of that of Russia. By mid-2008 the head of the local KGB, Anatoly Baranov, used to head the Federal Security Service (FSB) in the Russian Republic of Mordovia. The head of the South Ossetian Interior Ministry, Mikhail Mindzayev, had served in the Interior Ministry of Russia's North Ossetia. The South Ossetian Defense Minister, Vasily Lunev, used to be military commissar in Perm Oblast, and the secretary of South Ossetia's Security Council, Anatoly Barankevich, was a former deputy military commissar of Stavropol Krai.

This led Yulia Latynina, a columnist for "Novaya gazeta" and a host on Ekho Moskvyto, to observe "South Ossetia is not a territory, not a country, not a regime. It is a joint venture of siloviki generals and Ossetian bandits for making money in a conflict with Georgia... Saakashvili has bankrupted the joint venture of the Lubyanka chekisty and the Ossetian bandits."

Petre Mamradze, former head of Georgian governmental administration, parliamentary deputy representing the United National Movement ruling party: said "[South Ossetian leader Eduard] Kokoity is a criminal who Russian political experts at the time wrote was a member of a St. Petersburg criminal group, and his ministers are retired chekists who came from Russia."



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