The tension between political factions in South Ossetia has taken on new dimensions after the death of Georgian citizen Archil Tatunashvili
The mysterious death of Georgian citizen Archil Tatunashvili in Tskhinvali on 22 March has given rise to intense political debate in South Ossetia.
The main topics of these discussions are which of the political forces in South Ossetia are more loyal to Moscow, and who is more strongly supported in turn by the Kremlin.
Georgian citizen Archil Tatunashvili was detained by law-enforcement officers in South Ossetia on 22 February 2018. He died later that night in the Committee for State Security (KGB) building in Tskhinvali under circumstances of which exact nature have yet to be completely understood.
Despite the demands of Tbilisi which were supported by international organisations, his body was only handed over a month later on 20 March.
The Georgian government received the results of the autopsy performed by Russia which indicated that Tatunashvili died from heart failure because of acute myocardial ischemia.
The autopsy also said that his torso, hands and feet showed evidence of abrasions and bruises which were described as ‘minor injuries to health’.
The family of the deceased does not accept this version of events and asserts that Tatunashvili was killed. The Georgian authorities also have their own theory. They believe that the body was not handed over immediately because evidence of bodily injury and wounds would have been present.
It all began when, approximately two weeks after the body of Tatunashvili was returned to his relatives, ex-president of South Ossetia Eduard Kokoity came out in sharp criticism of the government. He challenged Tskhinvali’s statement which claimed that Tatunashvili was a ‘saboteur’ and came up with his own theory of the incident.
He claimed that the aim of the Tatunashvili incident was to discredit Russia on the international stage, and that this aim could only have been pursued because the South Ossetian government is under the influence of Tbilisi.
“Georgia is skimming information off the top … the international community is again threatening the Russian Federation. The case has already taken on international resonance. The Tatunashvili incident could become an excuse for the West and Georgia to organize a revision of the events of 2008,” Kokoity stated.
Petr Gassiev, a parliamentary speaker and member of United Ossetia, was the first to react in protest to this statement and in turn accused Kokoity of having a pro-Georgian agenda.
“In all the richness of the imagination – who else does this statement, which accuses the leadership of South Ossetia of coming up with a ploy [to discredit] Russia, benefit other than the Georgian government?”
Then, the current president answered his predecessor as well. Anatoly Bibilov said that the actions of the South Ossetian leadership were correct and that this had been proven at the end of March during the Geneva discussions. “The Europeans agreed with the arguments made by the South Ossetian side,” said Bibilov.
Then, in a rather sarcastic tone, he spoke about ‘several local politicians’ who, supposedly, are no longer sponsored by Russia and who have nothing to do other than criticize the authorities of South Ossetia.
Bibilov did not name names – but Kokoity’s supporters took his words as a jab at the ex-president. They took to Facebook and asked questions directly of the president; the latter joined in the fray and wrote that ‘he is not trying to scare anyone’ and that he is willing to speak directly with Kokoity himself.
JAMnews asked several experts to weigh in on this political discussion in South Ossetia.
The source from the inner circle of ex-president Eduard Kokoity asked that his name not be published:
“The authorities’ explanations of the body ‘not being handed over because they were waiting for the autopsy results from Russia’ does not hold up to any criticism whatsoever. This was a lie. The official conclusion was not presented, and in the document presented it doesn’t even say the name of the person who ascertained that Tatunashvili died from ‘heart failure’.
“It is obvious that the leadership of South Ossetia has chased itself into a corner. As the Tatunashvili incident unraveled, every episode became more and more serious, more and more fanciful in its development. He was detained in the Leningorsk district after a personal conflict with local law-enforcement officers. He was taken to Tskhinval where an unidentified person evidently led ‘investigative activities’ with him. While being escorted within the detention facility, he ‘tried to grab one of the guards’ weapons, slipped on the stairs and in doing so received a number of injuries’. He was then taken to hospital, where Tatunashvili later died from ‘heart failure’. Then his body was withheld from relatives for an entire month ‘in order to wait for autopsy results’.
“Tatunashvili lived for several years in the Leningorsk district. If all of a sudden he was indicated as being a participant in the 2008 war, then one has to ask the question – how did it take them so long to figure it out?
“All of these inconsistencies testify to the fact that the organs (departments, it is difficult to call them competent or relevant…) simply embarrassed themselves. But that is only half the problem. The republic’s leadership did not have the bravery to admit to its failure – to conduct an investigation into the matter and to uncover and punish those guilty of this crime.
“Instead, they tried to hush it. But these attempts were also illogical and strange. There was of course the possibility of handing over his body to his relatives so that he could be buried in Leningorsk. But for some reason that didn’t happen.
“How many people from Russia itself appealed to the president and asked him to hand over Tatunashvili’s body – from the well-respected conductor Gergiev to Patriarch Kirill. All of these requests were ignored.
“It is unknown just what information Kokoity has, but all of the above points to the fact that the official version the authorities have presented about the Tatunashvili incident just don’t add up.
“One could suppose that the situation will only continue to take on steam. The actions and decisions of the authorities on all the serious and pressing questions in the republic are met with by incredulouslness and misunderstandings in society.”
Nikolai Silaev, Senior Researcher at the Center for Caucasus Problems and Regional Security:
“I don’t intend to judge why the South Ossetian side decided not to hand over Archil Tatunashvili’s body for such a long period of time. But I doubt that Kokoity is the person who signals the South Ossetian leadership from Moscow because his relations with Moscow are not the best.
“It’s another thing that Kokoity obviously doesn’t intend to leave politics. He wants to return to politics somehow, and his words are, perhaps, a signal to Moscow in order to receive approval from the Kremlin. This doesn’t mean that Moscow gave him the authority to say these words. It just means that, in such a way, he understands Moscow’s desires. Maybe he is wrong, but this is the way he sees the issue.”
South Ossetian commentator Yuri Vazagov:
“I wouldn’t say that Kokoity’s statement has given rise to particularly tense discussions in our society. Perhaps these are attacks of a political nature, but it is more likely to be a reflection of other political processes. The individual case of Tatunashvili has become a reflection of the serious points of contention between the political forces of South Ossetia.”