Comment & analysis

The war over South Ossetia: two years on

26 August 2010 David Wood

Saferworld’s Caucasus Programme Manager, David Wood, comments on progress in building peace and stability in the region, and on the need for a long-term approach

Impact and lessons from August 2008

The August 2008 war over South Ossetia had a profound affect on communities across the region. As well as the immediate human suffering, the war created a new political, social, economic and security landscape, and increased uncertainty and anxiety on all sides over what the changed context meant for people’s lives and their futures.

At the same time, the return to violence called into question the manner in which the conflicts over Abkhazia and South Ossetia were being managed and how peace was being pursued. While typically described as ‘frozen’, the conflicts had never really stood ‘still’ since their respective ceasefires were signed in 1992 and 1993. Conflict-affected communities continued to endure suffering and hardships and the level of tension on the ground fluctuated depending on incidents or political positioning as local actors’ policies and attitudes towards the conflicts varied over time. Rather, while local realities changed, it was the overall international response that had become ‘frozen’ and demonstrated a lack of understanding of the unfolding nature of the conflicts, including the varying and intricate linkages between international (Russia vs. the West) and local levels of the conflicts.

The general lack of a strategic approach for preventing conflict and building peace meant that over time, the established monitoring and security mechanisms, as well as humanitarian and development assistance, became hostage to political goals and less focused on meeting the needs of conflict-affected communities. As a result, the very mechanisms that were supposed to prevent violence and promote peaceful resolution lost legitimacy. In the end, these mechanisms were not only unable to respond to the deteriorating context from mid-2006 - and hence help prevent the August 2008 war - but ended up becoming part of the environment in which a return to violence was possible.

The 2008 conflict resulted in a hardening of positions on all sides of the conflicts, with nationalist rhetoric and blame predominating over reflection over the appropriateness of past policies and actions. The growing division among perspectives has been fuelled by the limited availability of reliable and unbiased information on the conflicts, as well as the absence of informed analysis and discussions on ways to address them. The opportunity for contact between communities divided by conflict also reduced greatly, with many individuals and communities less willing or able to travel and engage in dialogue than before. As a result, peaceful resolution of the conflicts has become an even longer-term prospect.

In September 2008, and in response to the outbreak of violence, Saferworld outlined an agenda for building peace and security in the region (Peace in Georgia: creating an inclusive framework for regional peace and security), which included the following points:

  • The immediate humanitarian and crisis response should be balanced with measures to tackle the underlying causes of conflict and to contribute to longer-term conflict prevention and peacebuilding.
  • An updated monitoring and security framework for the conflicts, as well as linked humanitarian and development assistance, should not return to the essentially flawed status quo, but instead rethink how to address the different levels that make up the conflicts.
  • While the focus is on the future, a credible and shared analysis of past peace-keeping and peacebuilding processes should be developed to ensure that critical lessons are included in planning for long-term peace and stability.
  • While Russia played a determining role in the conflict, all international and local actors have played some part in permitting the hostilities to escalate. As such, the attainment of peace is a shared responsibility between local and international players that requires all parties to assess the appropriateness of past approaches and actions.
  • In the end, and assuming international interests in the region permit, the burden of agreeing peaceful settlement of the conflicts lies with Georgians, Abkhaz and South Ossetians. Hence emphasis should be given to their ability to dialogue on what a long-term road to peace would look like.

From crisis response to long-term conflict prevention and peacebuilding

The international response to the August 2008 war was in many ways impressive. The EU, through the French Presidency, played a key role in agreeing a ceasefire between Russia and Georgia in spite of internal disagreements over the nature and the causes of the war. The ceasefire documents established the Geneva process to develop a security mechanism for the region and agree the return of displaced people.

In addition, the EU established a short-term European Union Monitoring Mission (EUMM) to monitor implementation of the ceasefire agreement until accord was reached on a more permanent security mechanism. While the manner in which the EUMM was established and initially undertook its activities may have provoked a frosty reception in Sukhumi and Tskhinvali (as well as hastening the departure of the OSCE and UN missions), it has been critical in creating a sense of stability across much of the region, and in promoting confidence-building through cross-divide liaison and the Incident Prevention and Response Mechanism.

At the same time a post-conflict needs assessment, conducted by the European Union, United Nations Development Group and World Bank resulted in a shared understanding of the immediate humanitarian and crisis response needs, and funding was subsequently pledged at a conference in Brussels in October 2008. The response provided for the immediate shelter needs of displaced communities as well as the restructuring and economic redevelopment needed to avoid a ‘double dip’ crisis. The humanitarian response was complemented by sensitive and co-ordinated support for peacebuilding activities that have attempted to maintain the space available for dialogue. There was also an attempt to promote a more nuanced and longer-term understanding of the conflict through the EU’s fact finding mission, which resulted in the ‘Tagliavini report’, and support provided for development of a Georgian government strategy for engagement with Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

However, while the crisis response has been considerable, this phase is coming to an end and not enough investment has been made in developing a longer-term conflict prevention and peacebuilding strategy in the region. Opportunities have been lost along the way and lessons are being forgotten. The Joint Needs Assessment did not analyse the underlying causes of the conflict (an intended purpose) and no shared framework exists for what needs to be achieved in the medium term. The Tagliavini report was not used as an entry-point for supporting wider debate across communities and there are indications that the Georgian strategy for engagement in South Ossetia and Abkhazia may end up reducing rather than enabling the space for cross-divide dialogue and peacebuilding. At the same time, the Geneva Process has stalled and there is a lack of a consensus or vision over what success for the EUMM should look like, and how it can be linked to a wider conflict prevention strategy.

Right now, the international community does not seem to have a clear vision on how to utilise the mix of tools at its disposal for encouraging progressive actions by the conflicting parties, such as Russia implementing its ceasefire commitments or for Georgia to implement its post-conflict commitments to deeper democratic and media reforms. Most importantly, there continues to be no clear strategy for how the international community can engage with Abkhaz and South Ossetians in a constructive way that meets the needs of communities living there while evading politically charge debates over ‘territorial integrity’ and ‘recognition’.

The events in August 2008 demonstrated that conflicts are never truly ‘frozen’ and that without sustained attention to local dynamics and a comprehensive vision for enduring peace, dynamics can easily deteriorate and a return to violence becomes possible. It is essential that the international community does not use the end of the crisis-response period to ignore the conflicts over Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but commits to developing a longer-term strategy for conflict prevention and peacebuilding.

Saferworld’s contribution to conflict prevention and long-term peacebuilding

Since August 2008, Saferworld has supported various processes designe to enable deeper reflection by communities, local actors and the international community on the nature of the conflicts and explore appropriate long-term strategies for conflict prevention and peacebuilding. We have done this through the following means:

  • Demonstrating ways in which the safety and security needs of conflict-affected communities across the region can be met, in lieu of progress on a political resolution of the conflicts or the establishment of a security mechanism for the region. We do this by providing accessible information on safety and security needs and by supporting communities’ capacities to articulate their needs, and dialogue with security providers on the best ways of meeting them. At the same time, Saferworld contributes by supporting the capacities of security providers and monitors to better understand and engage with conflict-affected communities. For examples of this aspect of our work see Security, Community and Participation in Shida Kartli and Maximising the Mission’s Potential


  • Providing opportunity for communities to share perceptions on the conflicts, analyse the underlying issues that need addressing, and in a more informed manner dialogue with national and international decision-makers on conflict-related polices and strategies. We do this through a participatory debate and analysis process running in four regions of Georgia – Kvemo Kartli, Samegrelo, Samtskhe-Javakheti and Shida Kartli; the capturing of accessible information on local, national and regional conflict issues; and by organising discussions between communities and decision-makers in the four target areas. For an example of this aspect of our work see Community perceptions of the Causes and Effects of the August 2008 conflict in Kvemo Kartli, Samegrelo, Samtskhe-Javakheti and Shida Kartli.


  • Providing a framework for donors, development and humanitarian actors to better understand the conflicts, and how their assistance can further conflict prevention and peacebuilding goals. We do this through participatory impact assessments, joint analyses and by providing training on ‘conflict sensitive approaches’. For an example of this aspect of our work see Conflict sensitive approaches to donor engagement in Georgia.