On March 31, Anatoly Bibilov, the so-called “president” of the separatist Georgian region of South Ossetia—occupied by Russia since August 2008—announced that the local authorities would hold a popular referendum on whether to join the Russian Federation. “I believe that unification with Russia is our strategic goal, our path, the aspiration of the people. So, we will take the relevant legislative steps shortly. The Republic of South Ossetia will be part of its historical homeland—Russia,” Bibilov declared in a video message (Radio Tavisupleba, March 31).
The de facto South Ossetian leader made the statement about joining Russia in the middle of his reelection campaign—“presidential” elections are scheduled for April 10. The popularity among Ossetians of the idea of South Ossetia joining North Ossetia (one of the subjects of the Russian Federation, in the adjoining North Caucasus region) motivated Bibilov to exploit this idea to generate more votes for himself.
Yet electioneering considerations are not the only reason for the sudden intensification of political rhetoric about acceding to Russia. Popular support for “president” Bibilov has fallen sharply in recent weeks due to revelations of the catastrophe that befell South Ossetian military personnel fighting for Russia in Ukraine.
Reportedly, in March, around a thousand ethnic Ossetians serving at the Russian military base in Tskhinvali (the capital of South Ossetia) were sent into combat near Kyiv and in eastern Ukraine. Dozens of the Ossetian troops died in subsequent battles, and most of the South Ossetian military force fled from Ukraine back home. Upon their return, these soldiers professed they had been “in hell” and sharply criticized the authorities of the breakaway republic for agreeing to Russian demands to send them to war (Ekho Kavkaza, April 1).
After enduring repeat defeats near Kyiv and in the Donbas region, the Russian military needed to be replenished. Moscow, thus, began to transfer additional units from inter alia the Far East as well as South Ossetia and Abkhazia (see EDM, March 28). As Irakli Aladashvili, the editor-in-chief of the military-analytical magazine Arsenali, told this author back on January 17, at that time, the Russian military bases in the former Georgian autonomies of South Ossetia and Abkhazia were manned by a total of around 4,000 service members. In South Ossetia, the majority of the contingent were local Ossetians. But soon after being deployed to the Ukrainian warzone, hundreds of these troops—along with a group of so-called “Ossetian volunteers”—were forced to flee Ukraine, violating their contracts with the Russian Ministry of Defense (Ekho Kavkaza, April 1).
Gocha Mirtskhulava, the founder of the independent Georgian news and analytical agency Nation.ge, explained that, by holding a “referendum” on joining Russia, “president” Bibilov is making one final attempt to remain in power at home while reconfirming his loyalty to Moscow (Author’s interview, March 31). But Paata Zakareishvili, who served as Georgia’s state minister for reconciliation and civil equality (formerly the minister of reintegration) from 2012 to 2016, underscored that the South Ossetian separatist leader could hardly have dared to announce such a referendum without Moscow’s prior sanction for such a move. “Bibilov participated in several TV election debates over the past three weeks, but he never mentioned the referendum or the integration of South Ossetia into the Russian state,” Zakareishvili observed. He further argued, “Russia failed to capture Kyiv and lost several battles in Ukraine; and so [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is trying to make up for his failure by annexing Georgian territories” (Author’s interview, April 1).
Bibilov did not name a specific date for the referendum, but Putin’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, reacted immediately: “I cannot express any position. We have not taken any legal or other actions in this regard. But at the same time, in this case, we are talking about expressing the opinion of the people of South Ossetia; we treat them with respect” (M24.ru, March 31).
Leonid Kalashnikov, a Communist Party deputy in the State Duma (lower chamber of parliament) of the Russian Federation, made clear that Russia’s rubber-stamp legislature would support Bibilov’s initiative. “South Ossetia and Abkhazia have the right to hold a referendum, and now is the right time to conduct all legal procedures… [T]hey have long been, in fact, integrated into Russia from the point of view of security, economic support. Of course, it is better that this be transparent to Russia. If, tomorrow, the question arises [of the annexation of the two Georgian regions], then I would rather react positively to this. To do this, you need to carry out legal procedures, and it seems to me that the moment is quite suitable for this,” Kalashnikov argued (Ekho Kavkaza, March 31).
The fact that the lawmaker mentioned Abkhazia in the same context as South Ossetia did not please the Abkhazian authorities and elites of the second autonomy that broke away from Georgia back in 2008. Sergey Samba, who serves as the secretary of the so-called “Security Council of Abkhazia,” stressed that the unification of South Ossetia with North Ossetia is a national dream, and Abkhazia supports this aspiration of the inhabitants of the fraternal republic. “As for the possibility of Abkhazia joining Russia, there are no such sentiments either in political circles or in the Abkhazian society,” Shamba contended (Ekho Kavkaza, March 31).
Another important difference exists between Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the military sphere: in contrast to the authorities of South Ossetia, the Abkhazian leadership did not conclude an agreement with Russia on the integration of their army into the Russian Armed Forces. And at the Russian military base in the Abkhazian city of Gudauta, it is not local Abkhazians but regular Russian troops who serve. Crucially, Abkhazia did not willingly send its military units to fight against Ukraine. The exception was a small group volunteers linked to Abkhazian oppositionist Akhra Avidzba, who has been fighting in Ukraine for eight years, since the occupation of eastern Donbas by Russia (Exclusivenews.ge, March 4).
So if, amidst military setbacks in Ukraine, Russia is truly preparing to finally absorb the Georgian breakaway territories, Moscow may find new headaches to such expansionist designs in Abkhazia.