Feb 23 2005
Saakashvili dilemma: territorial autonomy and conflict
By Pierre JOLICOEUR, researcher in the Centre of Foreign Policy and
Security Studies – Montreal in Montreal (Canada)
The death of Georgian Prime Minister, Zurab Zhvania, and the debates
for the appointment of his successor held center stage in Georgia
early February. And thus, president Mikhail Saakashvili’s peace
proposal for South-Ossetia conflict, presented on January 26th at the
Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in Strasburg, was
pushed into the background.
And yet, this is a major breakthrough for the South-Ossetian issue,
especially within the context of heigthened tensions in the
secessionist territory during last year. By doing so, the regime from
the Rose Revolution has drawn up a first formal peace proposal for
the frozen conflict, by offering Tskhinvali a status of autonomy.
By itself the territorial autonomy would be a breakthrough for the
Ossetians. This status was unilaterally taken away from then by
former Georgian president Zviad Gamsakhurdia, and this ended up in
the 1991-1992’s conflict.
With this new proposal, Saakashvili offered to South-Ossetia an
autonomy wider than it was before the conflict, and also an
integration into the Georgian constitution. But this offer is still
not enough for the South-Ossetians. As a matter of fact South-Ossetia
being currently fully out of Tbilisi’s control, integrating Georgia
would be a step back from the point of view of the radicalists. This
would mean giving up their de facto independence.
Indeed Tbilisi’s proposal is quite astonishing since at the time it
was done, the observers were rather expecting that the Georgian
president makes an announcement for the other frozen conflict :
Abkhazia. Rumours had that he would offer Abkhazians to associate
with the Georgian Sate in the framework of a federation, thus
radically changing the Georgian State from a unitary structure into a
But rather than open the doors to Sukhumi’s leaders, Saakashvili
raised his voice toward them by stating that there was no more
interlocutor on the Abkhazian side since those ones had left the
negotiations table. This statement, in addition of the South-Ossetian
offer, has increased the pressure put up on the Abkhazians.
Generally speaking, federalism and territorial autonomy are
considered as good solutions to secessionist conflict, somekind of
compromise between the contradictory principles of people’s right for
self-determination and the respect of States’ territorial integrity.
However, it may happen that this kind of settlement, instead of
leading to the wished stability, causes a certain instability.
For instance, after the falldown of USSR and former Yugoslavia, the
political elite of the federated republics turned toward local
nationalist movements partly as a result of the federal structure of
those States. Indeed the secessionist movements were able to take off
and organize themselves politically for the very existence of their
political identity and local institutions.
In a certain way, the same happened in the Georgian autonomous
territories – as well as in Nagorno-Karabakh or Chechnya. Those
examples demonstrate that it might turn out to be hazardous to offer
mobilized ethnic groups administrative borders, a local
administration and all kinds of political institutions that may get
used to organize a secessionist movement in case there be a
motivation to do so. In an atmosphere of suspicion, it often takes
only the presence of a manipulating elite to turn the territorial
autonomy into a secessionist logic.
Considering the recent history of communist federations, it is
legitimate to wonder about the mid and long-term stability of federal
and quasi-federal regimes in this region. Nevertheless, given that
the secessionist territories are currently not within Tbilisi’s
jurisdiction, putting back those self-proclaimed republics under the
Georgian aegis, whatever be their special political status, would be
a breakthrough for Georgia in the short-term.
In this context, Saakashvili does not have any other choice than to
opt for the solution of a territorial autonomy in case he is looking
for a common ground with secessionist forces, even if this choice is