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South Ossetia: rights and freedoms in an unrecognised state

Article by Caucasian Knot and Alan Parastaev

September 26, 2019

South Ossetia: rights and freedoms in an unrecognised state

Writing an article about the human rights situation in South Ossetia is a difficult task. First, no one has done this for a long time. Secondly, there is a problem with the lack of information: data is difficult to access, regular monitoring is not carried out, there are few reports from independent human rights organisations, and even simple observations by external journalists or experts are rare. One of the main reasons for this situation is that international human rights institutions, such as Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), Council of Europe and UN mechanisms are not able to visit South Ossetia. In turn, Russian human rights activists do not show enough interest in working in the republic. Therefore, the material is largely prepared on the basis of the observations, memories, personal experience and understanding of the authors of this essay, building upon their past work in this field. These are sketches on the topic of human rights work in a partially recognised state. They should serve as a catalyst for non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in South Ossetia to start a full-fledged work, primarily in the format of monitoring and collecting relevant information.

Practically all respondents[1] with whom the author managed to talk communicated the same thesis: despite the ‘non-recognition’ and the extremely small impact of international and civil rights organisations on society, the situation with human rights and their observance in South Ossetia is not in a bad or dangerous condition.

In fact since 2012, following the election of then President Leonid Tibilov, political opponents are no longer being prosecuted and eliminated physically in South Ossetia.[2] Political dissenters are not being detained in prison for years without a charge. Of course, isolated instances of pressure have taken place and still do, but they are known to South Ossetian society, they have been written[3] about widely and regularly. South Ossetian society, at least its politically active part, has developed its attitude to such facts and to their organisers and initiators. Those political forces under whose rule such actions were committed are no longer in power, thanks in large part to the critical attitude of the population and to the non-acceptance of such methods of political struggle by the people.

Restrictions on rights as a result of non-recognition of South Ossetia

The problem of international recognition or rather, the ‘non-recognition’ of the republic, in particular by the United Nations (UN) and other international organisations, remains the fundamental issue of the observance of human rights in South Ossetia. The ‘non-recognition’ does not directly affect the level and quality of the observance of human rights, but due to the impossibility of carrying out a high-quality monitoring it impedes a full-fledged observance of human rights in the format of international standards. On the other hand, there are dozens of countries around the world, including those initially recognised, meeting in the UN and other international organisations, where membership implies the obligation to respect human rights and to provide access to monitoring, and where the humanitarian situation is substantially worse than in the Republic of South Ossetia.

The Presidency of Mikhail Saakashvili in Georgia saw perhaps the most active period of international engagement in the country, including from those working in the human rights sphere. Today, more and more facts about the human rights violations committed by the then security forces are being revealed, most of them concern violence used against prisoners and persons under investigation.

At the same time, the tendency of ‘linking’ the formation of human rights protection with the process of international recognition of South Ossetia is detrimental to both, in any case from the point of view of citizens of an unrecognised country. When Ossetians are told that they are not recognised, and that any benefits provided by the human rights system are therefore not available to them, they do not understand why and how this can happen. From the point of view of the South Ossetian man in the street, the international community declares that everyone is equal, at least when it comes to people´s rights. Nowhere has it been stated that citizens of recognised states are more equal than citizens of unrecognised ones. But Ossetians constantly face a situation where human rights and international organisations refuse to work in South Ossetia or with South Ossetia, explaining that they cannot and do not have the right to write the name of the Republic in their working papers for example and the authorities are unwilling to allow access by international organisations that do not accept their independence (and formally see them as part of Georgia) particularly in the post-2008 context where Russia has recognised South Ossetia’s claims.

Such an approach is perceived painfully in South Ossetian society. Understanding this, opponents of South Ossetia’s integration into the European community of nations constantly use this situation to their advantage, mentioning in speeches and publications that the Europeans, even in the name of NGOs, not only does not recognise us, but also supports the territorial integrity of Georgia, our potential adversary.

Limitations in human rights protection access are painful for Ossetians for another reason as well, because our independence was born on human rights grounds. It was Georgia’s attempts in the early 1990s to restrict Ossetians in their rights based on ethnicity (forcing them to use Georgian language, depriving them of cultural autonomy, evicting Ossetians from the interior of Georgia, illegal detentions, abductions, torture, violence and murder of people who were not involved in national Ossetian movements or armed formations) that led to the emergence of Ossetian resistance, first social and political, and then military.[4] 

It was the nationalist policies of the Georgian authorities, under both the Communist Party and Zviad Gamsakhurdia, who triggered the ‘Adamon Nykhas’, the South Ossetian Front for Support of Democracy and Perestroika to transform into a popular front for independence. That is, there is in the mind of any South Ossetian a deep understanding that the independence and the proclamation of the republic is the way to salvation from oppression on ethnic grounds, in other words, it is the answer to violations of Ossetians´ rights by Georgian authorities. Adamon Nykhas does not exist today as an operating organisation, although its active participants continue to meet, anniversaries[5] of its founding are celebrated at the official level, but the organisation does not take part in real politics or human rights activities, although initiatives to revive it are periodically taken.

What rights do Ossetians want to defend, and who is defending them?

There are virtually no human rights organisations in South Ossetia today, nor human rights activists, or any system for the protection of human rights. Yes, there are such organisations as ‘Journalists for Human Rights’, ‘The Jurists´ Association’, ‘Women for Human Rights’, etc., but in our opinion they do not work in the format and at the level that human rights work implies. NGOs that do not position themselves as human rights defenders, are in fact forced to be active in human rights activities as well participating in public protests in defense of their rights, such as the winter 2011-12 protests in Theatre Square. 

No matter how much the critics of the South Ossetian political system may speak up, it is in fact a democratic state, governed by the rule of law though with problems that it is trying to solve within the constraints it faces. The republic was conceived this way from the very beginning, and this principle could not be destroyed either by numerous wars with Georgia, by recognition from the Russian Federation, or by the presidential regimes, no matter how much they tried. Our unrecognised state could simply not have withstood and still stand without the principles of human rights protection.

Millions of euros from the budget and from charitable foundations are spent on the development and simple existence of human rights structures in the West, thousands of employees are working for them. South Ossetia has no such opportunity. The role of the human rights system in South Ossetia is played by the President. Having understood all the ‘charm’ of playing the role of an ‘authoritarian human rights activist’, having calculated all the advantages that can be achieved that way, no president, having once received such a prerogative, will ever give it away to anyone.

The most demanded right among the Ossetians is the right to live, and it was largely implemented in 2008, thanks to the entry of armed forces into the Republic of South Ossetia and the recognition of South Ossetia´s independence by Russia. Protection of the rights of those South Ossetian citizens who were arrested and taken hostage on the territory of Georgia was relevant until those fateful events.

The state guarantees sufficiently the citizens´ rights. As already mentioned, Ossetians do not experience persecution for our political or religious views. This is regulated both by laws, and by unspoken practices established in society, by traditional behavior algorithms, and by concepts rooted in the public consciousness, that for some can amount to a culture of self-censorship.

Last year’s campaign to close the organisation Jehovah’s Witnesses is more likely to be attributed to the tendency of replicating the processes taking place in the Russian Federation’s socio-political sphere, especially if they are caused by another aggravation of relations with the West. Jehovah’s Witnesses continue to gather and hold services in South Ossetia. It is unhealthy when state structures conduct certain actions for the sake of appearance. They issue regulations, but do not observe them in practice.

The authorities do not in general tend to persecute people on political or other grounds. The adoption of the law ‘On Non-Profit Organisations’ in 2014[6], which introduced the term ‘foreign partner’ into legal proceedings, triggered great concern. The deliberate rejection of the term ‘agent’ is noteworthy. It is used in both in Russia and the United States, but it evokes obvious negative associations. NGOs with that status receive money from abroad. They have to submit information to the controlling authorities, specifying the sources of their projects and program funding, indicating the goals and objectives that the received funds will be spent on. To date there are no examples showing that this law is used by the authorities to harass political opponents or enemies however such rules can be seen to add a bureaucratic burden to NGOs and may risk having a potential chilling effect that dissuades organisations from taking international funding. According to the Ministry of Justice of South Ossetia, 160 NGOs were registered in the republic on 1st January 2019. Only seven of them have the status of ‘foreign partner’. With the exception of the organisation ‘Journalists for Human Rights’, which operates in the framework of UN projects, all of them receive funding from Russia.

On the other hand, the facts of violence used by law enforcement agencies, the Ministry of Interior and the Prosecutor’s Office are clear. Suspects and sometimes just detainees, are subjected to pressure[7] and threats. These are not isolated incidents, they take place regularly. Another problem is also exposed here – the reluctance of victims of violence and their relatives to act according to the law: to complain and to sue the responsible officials. People rely more on ‘personal connections’ when solving their problems.

Simply put, there is no understanding by the victims that hiding a crime, especially one committed by an official, because of a reluctance to initiate cases on violence before a court, actually increases the likelihood of a relapse of the system. Also it increases the likelihood of this kind of crime being repeated against their fellow citizens, who often turn out to be close friends. There is no public responsibility. In most of these cases, the perpetrator and the victim come to an agreement on certain conditions.

The institution of the Ombudsman[8] remains almost the only human rights institution in the republic that can be defined as such. It was most active in the period 2004–2008 between the two main armed phases of the conflict, even though armed clashed did not cease during this period and in fact aggressions from the Georgian authorities against South Ossetia resumed. Despite that, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) mission worked actively in South Ossetia at that time, and the defender’s apparatus cooperated with OSCE. It was a positive example of an international organisation´s work in the context of non-recognition.

The South Ossetian side resolved issues related to incidents in border areas through the OSCE. These were basically detentions of South Ossetian citizens by Georgian law enforcement agencies, which often ended in criminal cases and arrests under various pretexts. With OSCE mediation, such cases often ended in exchanges or simply in release of the detainees. Several cases concerned posts that the Georgian armed units had set up at the entrances to the Ossetian villages, complicating or blocking access to the villages both for their local permanent residents and South Ossetian citizens, as well as for those living in Tskhinval and other settlements in the Republic of South Ossetia.

Along with actions undertaken in conflict situations related to the consequences of the Ossetian-Georgian conflict, the present time is characterised by the intensification of the human rights work done both by the Ombudsman and by a number of South Ossetian human rights defenders and civil society activists in purely internal matters. This includes dismissing a civil servant, raising the issue of treatment of imprisoned persons, protecting the rights of transit passengers, that is citizens of Armenia and Azerbaijan, activating the civil society, and supporting civil non-governmental initiatives.

Stalinism and the request ‘for justice’

Much is said about such a phenomenon as the popularity of Stalin and the support of his state policy by the Ossetians. As sociological studies show, this is not a distinctive feature only of Ossetians. According to the latest survey carried out by Levada Center[9] in Russia, the level of Stalin´s popularity has broken a historic record. Another part of the Ossetians is no less firmly convinced that Ossetians were particularly subjected to the most large-scale repressions during the years of Stalin’s rule. 

Two such perceptions of Stalinism can coexist only in one case – when people find a positive element in Stalinism that they cannot find in today’s reality. This positive element, which they associate with ‘justice’, is glorified and mythologised. Justice is understood as human equality before the law, even if this law is transformed by the ‘Stalinists’ into Stalin himself. Justice is expressed in equal punishment for violating the law, both for the peasant and for the minister, even if he just yesterday was the closest person to the leader himself. Even though the punishment of former comrades-in-arms had nothing to do with the law observance, it was presented and became imprinted in social memory in particularly that way. Today it continues to be presented in the same manner by the propagandists of Stalinism. It is difficult to set anything against it in the absence of a full-fledged human rights system.

Some of the most controversial cases that took place in the years after the proclamation of independence of South Ossetia and the conflict with Georgia, actually had their own financial, economic and criminal background. Making a criminal be perceived as the victim of political repression is just as wrong as making someone a victim of political persecutions or ethnically-based persecutions as the result of actions by a criminal authority or an ordinary. However, such cases occur when human rights defenders and journalists interpret them as the persecutions based on national or political grounds, while in fact they contain much bigger monetary and sometimes criminal components.

Such manipulations with facts trigger, among other things, requirements of a fair punishment of the perpetrator, embodied in the myth of the incorruptible ruler of justice, the selfless and noble Stalin. The history of repressions and deportations is, at best, forgotten or left in the background; at worst, people draw a direct link between repression and justice. And this is also due to the lack of human rights defenders.

Without training the local South Ossetian activists to become specialists who will later be able to monitor the current human rights situation, to prepare analytical materials and to offer further recommendations, a full-fledged work in any of the human rights areas is hardly possible.


Authors’ bios:

Gregory Shvedov is a Russian human rights activist and journalist, known for his efforts in promoting human rights in Russia, most notably in the Caucasus region. He is currently the editor-in-chief of the Caucasian Knot, an online news medium established to provide unbiased information regarding political oppression, human rights violations, and the ongoing violent conflict throughout the region. In 2012, he received the Geuzenpenning for his efforts.

Alan Parastaev is a blogger and NGO activist who writes about civil society in South Ossetia, including human rights.

Photo by President of Russia, Russian-South Ossetian negotiations, November 2017, http://kremlin.ru/events/president/news/56074/photos. No modifications to photo. Creative commons licence, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/deed.en

[1] The respondents wished to preserve anonymity. It is advisable in this material not to attract the attention of the authorities and law enforcement structures to the respondents, this may complicate further work with them in the future.

[2] During the current Presidency of Anatoly Bibilov there has been the arrest and conviction of former Minister of Telecommunications Georgy Kabisov whose supporters believe the prosecution to be politically motivated while the Prosecutors Office presents the case as tackling corruption from the period of Eduard Kokoity’s presidency. There are many who saw the cases of Alan Parastaev (the former de facto Minister not the co-author if this essay) and the Khubezhov brothers has having political motivations

[3] Arsen Kozaev, The Opposition accused South Ossetian authorities of trying to eliminate non-parliamentary parties, Caucasian Knot, August 2015,https://www.kavkaz-uzel.eu/articles/266496/; Caucasian Knot, Vladikavkaz court has sentenced Soslan Kokoyev to three years in prison, April 2012, https://www.kavkaz-uzel.eu/articles/204356/

[4] For background on the South Ossetian de facto administration’s views on the matter  see Caucasian Knot, South Ossetia recalls victims of refugee execution, May 2006, https://www.kavkaz-uzel.eu/articles/95029/

[5] Society, Faded Glory ‘Adam Nyhas’, Ekho Kavkaza, November 2018,  https://www.ekhokavkaza.com/a/29579675.html

[6] Maria Kotaeva, In South Ossetia, the law on NGOs has been passed in the final reading, Caucasian Knot, May 2014, https://www.kavkaz-uzel.eu/articles/242564/

[7] Caucasian Knot, Former head of the Ministry of Communications of South Ossetia went on a hunger strike in jail, July 2018, https://www.kavkaz-uzel.eu/articles/322964/

[8] Information on the activities of the Ombudsman is provided by the office of the public defender, based on annual reports

[9] Levada Center Newsletter, Dynamics of attitudes towards Stalin, Levada Center, April 2016, https://www.levada.ru/2019/04/16/dinamika-otnosheniya-k-stalinu/

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