THE BLOG
03/06/2015 08:16 BST | Updated 01/06/2016 06:59 BST

Toxic Platitudes: The Importance of a More Holistic Approach to 'Peacebuilding' in South Ossetia

When I get up in the morning, the first thing I do is read the news. I scan as many sources as I can depending on the time I have available. Many years of doing this have convinced me that nothing is written without a reason. It is as the Russian poet Mayakovsky wrote, that even if the stars are lit, it means someone needs it.

When I get up in the morning, the first thing I do is read the news. I scan as many sources as I can depending on the time I have available. Many years of doing this have convinced me that nothing is written without a reason. It is as the Russian poet Mayakovsky wrote, that even if the stars are lit, it means someone needs it.

A few days ago I read that the South Ossetian parliament had discussed a draft law "on subsoil and subsoil use in the Republic of South Ossetia", banning the import of nuclear waste into the republic.

I was astonished at the agility and capacity of the parliamentary majority, which has recently busied itself more with identifying internal enemies, succeeding in forcing the departure of the Foreign Minister through a vote of no confidence after he disagreed with the ruling party's favoured draft of the partnership agreement with Russia.

According to the report, the MPs apparently considered the current law on subsoil to be outdated - though no reason for this was given. Delving further into the matter, I discovered that the South Ossetian public is extremely concerned by rumours that adoption of the new law will in fact permit the importing of radioactive waste for burial.

The people of South Ossetia understand full well that they survived the last 20 years of conflict with Georgia, and the blockade that restricted supplies of food and other essentials, thanks to their exceptional climate and pristine environment.

What is more, one of the reasons behind separatism and conflict with Georgia in the first place was an assault by the Soviet-era Georgian authorities on this unspoiled environment and the traditional Ossetian way of life. In the 1970s the Georgian government decided to build a giant ammonia factory in South Ossetia, within the town boundaries, claiming this would encourage an inflow of farmers from high-mountain villages to benefit from what they promised would be high salaries. The recalcitrant highland farmers, who had not succumbed to Sovietisation, did not speak Russian or Georgian, and had continued to produce high quantities of their own meat and cheese, despite Soviet bans on private production.

They wanted Ossetian language schools to be built in their villages, but the authorities instead built boarding schools in town, and they were forced to send their children there, only seeing them a few times a year. It was assumed that with the opening of the factory, the then South Ossetian Autonomous Republic would be transformed from an agricultural to an industrial economy. However, a young chemistry teacher from the local university, Yulia Gabaraeva, mobilised her students and local activists to take part in mass protests against the proposal. The retributive Soviet party machine reacted harshly, and arrests began. Tension between protesters in South Ossetia and Tbilisi became so intense that Moscow decided to abandon the plan. However, the scientific career of the promising young scientist, who was already well known in academic circles in the USSR and Japan, was over. For the rest of her life, Soviet propaganda cast her as the town "crazy", who had prevented Ossetia's economy from flourishing.

Now after the parliament's recent decision, the people are appeased, with reassurances in the media that there is no reason to worry, that the natural wealth and subsoil always belonged, and will continue to belong, to the people of South Ossetia; that it remains under the control of the state, and that parliament has retained in the new version of the law the ban on burying radioactive toxic waste in South Ossetia.

Nevertheless, this seems to me to be a false sense of assurance. I cannot conduct a legal analysis of the old law and the draft new law, but my understanding from open sources is that the intention of the draft law is to allow the possibility of granting rights to use South Ossetian subsoil in perpetuity. This could mean in practice that while the state would formally retain property rights over subsoil, de facto ownership could be transferred to subsoil users: mining companies and individuals, including foreigners. While preserving the ban on importing radioactive and other toxic waste for burial, the new law would make it possible to dispose of industrial and household waste in South Ossetia.

South Ossetia has just one ally and partner with nuclear arsenal: Russia. And, coincidentally or not, Russia is also reconsidering its laws. According to a new federal law, from 1 January 2016, the words "radioactive, toxic and other dangerous waste" will be replaced by the words "waste classed 1st -5th degree of danger". In South Ossetia's draft law, there is no definition provided for such a classification. Theoretically this could lead to a rather broad interpretation of "industrial and household waste" which under the new draft law could be buried in the territory of South Ossetia.

Unfortunately, these days, it is hard to expect the emergence of a civil society leader such as the late chemistry lecturer, who could highlight the danger to society concealed in these kind of games with laws and words. Moreover, after years of war and isolation, failure to be understood by the outside world and facing all sorts of limitations across the board - including in the education system - I do not think that modern South Ossetian society is even ready to take such a danger seriously.

Needless to say, experimenting with such laws in an earthquake-prone area - where in 1991 an earthquake measuring 7 on the Richter scale killed 200 people and destroyed about 46,000 buildings - would be suicidal.

Towards a lasting peace in South Ossetia

As someone working in the region for many years, I feel a great moral burden about what is happening. South Ossetia is a region where international organisations work on post-conflict rehabilitation and peacebuilding. And for some reason they believe that success is contingent on cross-community projects, those which bring people together across the conflict divide. I do not deny the usefulness of dialogue between parties at all levels; indeed I fully embrace it. However, often, forced by the requirements of international donors, civil society representatives focus only on supporting contacts across the divide, and because of this lose their credibility inside the community.

Yet in order to facilitate dialogue, we need to create a platform for it. And by platform, I do not just mean a hotel with a good restaurant in a neutral country for secret meetings between representatives of the conflicting communities. Work should also be done within communities for its rehabilitation in all senses of the word - i.e. to restore a healthy and educated post-conflict environment on both sides of the lines of separation, so that people such as the late chemistry lecturer can emerge and - no less important - so that there are enough people prepared to get engaged.

Otherwise, if we just work for political regulation of the conflict, trying to reduce the risk of armed conflict, and getting nearer to a resolution on political status, we may suddenly find ourselves in a zone of radioactive contamination, where the problem of conflict resolution will become irrelevant.