Moscow Strives to Diminish Its Foreign Protectorates to the Level of the Russian Regions

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 9 Issue: 59

South Ossetian presidential election, November 2011 (Source: World Bulletin)

In March 2012, Russian policy toward the Georgian breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as well as the Moldovan breakaway territory of Transnistria, took another turn. On March 16, the outgoing president of Russia, Dmitry Medvedev appointed the governor of Krasnodar region, Aleksandr Tkachev, as “Special Representative of the President of Russia to Abkhazia.” On March 21, the head of North Ossetia, Teymuraz Mamsurov, was appointed as the Russian President’s Special Representative to South Ossetia. On the same day, March 21, Dmitry Rogozin, the vice prime minister of Russia who is known for his nationalist views, was appointed as the Russian President’s Special Representative to the Transnistria region (kremlin.ru, March 16, 21). Georgian parliamentary members regarded the appointment of a special representative to Abkhazia as its explicit annexation by Russia (http://www.yuga.ru/news/256846/, March 19).

Abkhazians themselves may not be very receptive to Moscow’s move. As of March 22, the official website of the de-facto government of Abkhazia, govabk.org, did not even mention Tkachev’s appointment, although Abkhazia’s president, Aleksandr Ankvab, expressed his contentment in an interview for a local TV channel (http://abkhazeti.info/abkhazia/2012/1332272683.php, March 20). “Now, being responsible for the cooperation between Abkhazia and Russia, I will spare no effort to make our peoples closer to each other. [I will work] to create a common economic space in the future,” Tkachev vowed after his appointment (http://kommersant.ru/doc/1896697, March 20). However, getting even closer to Russia is not necessarily something the Abkhaz wish for. Krasnodar region lies to the north of Abkhazia and is the only Russian region connected to this breakaway territory by land transportation routes. Krasnodar region’s population is over five million and, by the most optimistic estimates, Abkhazia’s population is 250,000, with about half or less of it being ethnic Abkhaz. Aleksandr Tkachev was in power in 2004 when Russia introduced stringent sanctions on Abkhazia in retaliation for electing Sergei Bagapsh, a candidate Kremlin did not favor. The current head of Abkhazia, Ankvab, was in Bagapsh’s team at the time, so the standoff between Tkachev and Ankvab may still bear some importance. Tkachev’s appointment probably reflects Moscow’s desire to establish better administrative control over Abkhazia, given the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi in 2014.

The symbolic connotation of establishing patronage over Georgia’s breakaway territories is even more evident in the South Ossetian case as the head of neighboring North Ossetia, Teymuraz Mamsurov was appointed the Russian President’s Special Representative there. Had the head of Chechnya been appointed to be the Russian President’s representative in Dagestan, it would have been glaringly apparent that Moscow was trying to establish a patron-client relationship between Chechnya and Dagestan. In the cases of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, a very similar development can be observed: Moscow is trying to devolve its authority over these territories to the regional level to diminish their importance and autonomy and make them feel like any other Russian region. This does not mean that Moscow will be successful in establishing tighter control over Abkhazia and South Ossetia now. Instead, it might create even greater resentment against Russia in both of these territories.

South Ossetia is probably the most illustrative case of deadlock that Moscow artificially created. On March 25, what appears to be a third round of “presidential elections” is taking place in South Ossetia. When the opposition candidate, Alla Jioeva, scored a victory over the Kremlin’s candidate, Anatoly Bibilov, in the November 2011 “presidential election” runoff, the South Ossetian authorities – backed and, possibly, even guided by Moscow advisers – simply annulled the election’s result. In February 2012, when Jioeva tried to hold a formal “inauguration” ceremony as “president of South Ossetia,” she was arrested, allegedly beaten up and put in a local hospital. On March 22, Jioeva finally made a public statement on her unclear status. Although she is not formally under arrest or under investigation-related limitations, she is forcibly being held in the hospital. The authorities’ intent is probably to hold off Jioeva’s release until “elections” take place on March 25 (http://south-osetia.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/203472/, March 22). When the South Ossetian government abolished the November 2011 election results, Jioeva’s followers built up formidable and unanticipated public protest actions in this tiny territory. Now the authorities are trying to keep her away from the street.

The unpopularity of the previous president of South Ossetia, Eduard Kokoity, became so manifestly obvious to all involved parties that Moscow reportedly banned him from visiting South Ossetia for the election period (http://uasdan.com/magkaev/otvet/1317-esche-raz-o-tom-kto-vinovat-v-tom-chto-eti-kandidaty-chi-to-marionetki-i-chto-delat.html). After Kokoity resigned in December 2011, the prime minister of South Ossetia, Russian businessman Vadim Brovtsev, was established as an interim head of government. Through a rigorous selection procedure, all opposition candidates were removed from the race, leaving in only four people. Ex-KGB officer Leonid Tibilov, South Ossetia’s “ambassador” to Russia Dmitry Medoev, South Ossetian ombudsman David Sanakoev and republican communist party leader Stanislav Kochiev currently contest for the South Ossetian presidency. Despite excluding a number of potential runners, local observers say, a second round of elections is inevitable because there is no clear winner in the race. Any of the three candidates, except for the communist Kochiev, may reportedly be expected to end up as the next head of South Ossetia (http://kommersant.ru/doc/1898247, March 23).

On the next day after his appointment on March 21, the Russian President’s “Special Representative” for South Ossetia Teymuraz Mamsurov addressed the South Ossetians, asking them to come out to the voting stations on March 25 (http://cominf.org/node/1166492177, March 22). Voter turnout in South Ossetia apparently concerns Moscow, since the disillusioned people may simply ignore the elections and delegitimize further an already weak government. Ironically, the head of North Ossetia, Mamsurov, never was elected to his position himself, but rather was appointed by the President of Russia.

The paradox of the situation is that while Moscow strenuously tries to preserve an image of electoral democracy in South Ossetia, at the same time, it purposefully discourages people from thinking they can elect their own government. The latter is even more puzzling since all the presidential candidates in South Ossetia in the first elections in November 2011 were manifestly pro-Russian. The explanation lies within the nature of the current political regime in Russia that seems to be principally opposed to the idea of unmanaged, free-flowing democracy. Since Abkhazia and South Ossetia are physically, politically and culturally in close proximity to the North Caucasus, the situation of elections in the Georgian breakaway territories when there are no elections allowed in the North Caucasus is not sustainable. So the establishment of the Special Representative institution is designed to bridge the gap between the two with various means, such as degrading self-rule and electoral processes in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.