The situation in Ukraine continues to quickly evolve, and the Russian annexation of Crimea has already mostly faded away from the 24-hour news cycle. Additionally, Western leaders are now hinting that at least some of the sanctions putting pressure on Moscow may soon be suspended (ITAR-TASS, September 5). Amidst all this, the leadership of South Ossetia—the former Georgian autonomy, which broke away from Georgia with Russian military support in August 2008—is apparently now seriously considering holding a referendum on formally joining the Russian Federation.
The current head of the South Ossetian parliament, Anatoly Bibilov is assumed to be the proposed referendum’s main proponent. Bibilov led the breakaway republic’s United Ossetia (UO) party in its successful parliamentary campaign last summer, in which it received the majority of the votes. UO’s primary slogan was the “unification” of South Ossetia with North Ossetia, an autonomous North Caucasus republic inside the Russian Federation. South Ossetia, according to these plans, would either form a united “Ossetia” within Russia, or seek to become its own region inside the Federation—the Republic of South Ossetia (Voice of Russia, June 24).
The idea of “unification” is not particularly new—the Ossetians spoke in favor of leaving Georgia even during the time of the Soviet Union (republicofsouthossetia.org, accessed September 26). However, at that point, their intentions were masked by calls to make “the union republics equal to the autonomous republics” within the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). In other words, South Ossetia and Abkhazia wanted to leave the Georgian SSR and become directly subordinate to Moscow, bypassing Tbilisi (Vestnik Kavkaza, March 17, 2010).
Today, the Crimean precedent of March 2014 provides hope to proponents of a similar process occurring in South Ossetia. The difference between South Ossetia and Abkhazia is that the Abkhazian leaders have never expressed a wish to join the Russian Federation. Indeed, the newly elected president of Abkhazia, Raul Khajimba, firmly reiterated his administration’s intention to retain the breakaway republic’s independence (suffragio.org, August 27).
The main puzzle is whether Moscow is prepared to respond to Tskhinvali’s demands and accept South Ossetia into the Federation. If South Ossetia holds a referendum on joining Russia, President Vladimir Putin will face a choice of whether to grant South Ossetia’s demand or not. Not granting this demand would mean Putin losing face inside his country, since Russian society would perceive it as a sign of weakness after the “Crimean triumph.” But granting the South Ossetians their wish would represent yet another example of Russia annexing territory that the vast majority of countries worldwide and all members of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)—except Russia—still consider to be an unalienable part of Georgia.
Even if the annexation of South Ossetia does not worsen Moscow’s already abysmal relations with the West, the continuing process of taking over neighboring territories could further frighten the other members of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS)—not least, Kazakhstan. This Central Asian republic’s president, Nursultan Nazarbaev, recently mentioned the possibility of leaving the Customs Union that Kazakhstan has joined together with Russia and Belarus (gazeta.ru, August 30). And many observers presumed that the primary reason for Nazarbayev’s warning was the ongoing situation in Ukraine and the implications of the “Crimean precedent” for the territories of northern Kazakhstan, where millions of ethnic Russians reside.
Zurab Gogoberidze, a columnist at the Georgian weekly newspaper Premier, told Jamestown that it was unlikely such concerns would stop Moscow from carrying out the annexation of South Ossetia, if Russia’s leadership decided it needed to punish Georgia for continuing on its pro-Western course and developing closer ties with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). “The primary question is what attitude Moscow will hold about the decision made at NATO’s summit in Wales to grant Georgia a special Alliance cooperation package” (Civil Georgia, September 5), Gogoberidze said. According to the analyst, “on the one hand, NATO refused to grant a MAP [Membership Acting Plan] to Georgia, but on the other hand, it elevated the country to the level of its closest partners and promised to establish a training center on Georgian territory. US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel did not rule out the possibility of giving defense weaponry to the Georgian army during his recent visit,” he added (Author’s interview, August 19).
It is not known yet when South Ossetia will hold its referendum on joining Russia. According to statements by the South Ossetian leaders and publications in the media, the authorities are carefully analyzing all the signals coming from Moscow, waiting for an unequivocal sign that would allow them to make the final decision and set the referendum date. The signals have been contradictory so far. According to experts, the reason for this “uncertainty” is that the Russians’ willingness “to punish Georgia” for the decisions taken at the Wales summit has not superseded the Kremlin’s overall pragmatism. “People in Moscow are likely not worried about any sort of final deterioration of Russia’s relations with Georgia, which would follow South Ossetia’s accession to Russia. The relations between Russia and Georgia have barely normalized up to now, even following the change of government [in Tbilisi]. However, an “Anschluss” of South Ossetia would be expensive, as Moscow would at least need to fortify several hundred kilometers of the border between South Ossetia and Georgia,” David Avalishvili, a columnist with the informational-analytical agency GHN, told Jamestown on September 19.
Currently, even though South Ossetia is recognized by Russia and has a “special agreement” with Russia, South Ossetians still undergo rigid control checks at the border with the Russian Federation. This state of affairs has become the United Ossetia party’s primary argument in favor of pressing ahead with the idea of holding the referendum on whether to join Russia. For now, the Russian government refuses to lift the barriers at the border with South Ossetia because the Georgian–South Ossetian border remains completely porous.
The second reason for Moscow to ask the South Ossetians to postpone holding a referendum, according Avalishvili, may be the complicated situation in nearby Abkhazia, where all the major politicians are strongly opposed to joining Russia. As he notes, “if such a referendum were to take place in South Ossetia, the differences between Abkhazia and South Ossetia would become obvious. Moscow tries to construct a united paradigm of relations with these [breakaway] republics though their integration into the so-called ‘new contour of defense and security in the South Caucasus’ ” (Izvestia, September 3, 2014). But in the coming months, Moscow is almost certain to have to finally make a deliberate choice in this matter.