Russia Leverages South Ossetia – Again

South Ossetians will vote in a referendum in July to grant their President the right to request admission to the Russian Federation as its new constituent entity. Some Russian analysts are at pains to present this as Tskhinvali’s home-grown initiative, but the tell-tale signs of Moscow’s close engagement are there. Is Russia planning to annex South Ossetia? And if yes, what for?

Tornike Zurabashvili is former editor of and a fellow at the Eurasia Democratic Security Network (EDSN).

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Asked whether he would consider incorporating Georgia’s breakaway republic into the Russian Federation on April 14, Vladimir Putin responded that Moscow was not “yet looking at such an option” and that “he had not discussed” the issue of the referendum in detail with his South Ossetian counterpart. But Putin went on to remark – in a characteristically cryptic manner that confused the analysts – that Moscow would act in the “the interests of South Ossetian people” and “would not oppose” such a referendum.

The breakaway republic’s leader Leonid Tibilov took the cue and sprang into action. On April 20, the draft wording of the referendum question was made public and on April 23, approximate timing of the referendum was also announced.

Putin’s going along with the referendum is a notable shift in Moscow’s official post-2008 policy line. Since Russia recognised independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in 2008, Moscow painted itself as the patron-saint of their newly-gained statehood. Russia’s Foreign Ministry went to great lengths to achieve their recognition by its client states – and has largely failed.  Georgia, on its side, has argued that both regions were effectively occupied.

True, the Kremlin has also used the past eight years to tighten its grip over the areas. Russian FSB troops are now in charge of their borders with the rest of Georgia. Moscow closely controls local politics and makes most senior appointments. Under the newly signed treaties, Abkhazia and South Ossetia operate more like Russia’s own autonomous republics, rather than like independent political entities. All this has been done without formal annexation and without triggering any adverse international response. Why change the seemingly comfortable course eight years later?

Moscow’s fingerprints

Moscow’s position has been hesitant, but its endorsement of the referendum seems decisive. South Ossetia’s leader, Leonid Tibilov was initially opposed to the idea: he has even decried the referendum as a PR-trick by his opponents. But on the margins of the October 19, 2015 meeting with Vladislav Surkov – Moscow’s chief curator over Abkhazia and South Ossetia and the mastermind of Crimea’s annexation – Tibilov seems to have brought up the plan. As Tibilov’s press service reported the South Ossetian leader “shared his decision to conduct a referendum on the admission of South Ossetia to the Russian Federation”. Surkov’s response to the initiative was not covered. Moscow has remained publicly mute on the referendum since.

Tibilov though, continued to precise further details during October 2015, laying out his rationale for the referendum.  On March 31, 2016, he met Vladimir Putin. The two did not bring up the referendum in their public statements. But Tibilov confirmed four days later that the matter was discussed and that the referendum would take place “not in a year, two years or six months, but earlier.” In this light, Putin’s April 14 statement sounds more like a public go-ahead to the referendum plan.

South Ossetia enthusiastic

Arguing for Moscow’s involvement in nudging the referendum decision is not meant to deny genuine, local sentiments in favour of joining Russia. In fact, South Ossetia’s political leaders have almost unanimously embraced the prospect of integration.

South Ossetians see the full incorporation into the Russian Federation as a long-term guarantee of their security, as they fear that over time they might become a bargaining chip for Moscow to win Georgia over.

Above all however, South Ossetian enthusiasm to join the Russian Federation stems from their desire for “reunification” with their ethnic kin in North Ossetia, one of Russia’s most urbanised republics in North Caucasus. With a population of roughly 700 000, North Ossetia is 14 times larger than South Ossetia. Although the two territories have never existed as a unified administrative entity, virtually every South Ossetian politician today favours the unification of two Ossetias within the Russian Federation.

This was not always the case, however. Back in 1925, three years after the establishment of the South Ossetian Autonomous District within the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic, North Ossetian and South Ossetian communists addressed Moscow to let them unite inside the Georgian SSR.

A host of issues makes the prospect of unification less appealing for North Ossetia’s administrative capital, Vladikavkaz. One is their unwillingness to share Moscow’s subsidies with the southern neighbour, which is a lot less developed than North Ossetia economically, and is also notoriously corrupt even by the rock-bottom North Caucasus standards. Somewhat oddly, North Ossetia’s close economic and historical ties with Georgia and the presence of sizable ethnic Georgian diaspora (estimated at about 10 thousand residents, mostly in Vladikavkaz) has left Russia’s North Ossetia/Alania more sympathetic to Tbilisi than their South Ossetian kinsmen.

Why would Moscow do it?

The Kremlin is apt in presenting the controversial political decisions as “local initiatives” and “the will of the people”. In 2014, in the months leading up to the Crimea referendum, Moscow did its best to depict the process as locally-driven. In Crimea, just like now in South Ossetia, the details of the referendum were uncertain until the very last moment. But being already under the Western sanctions over Crimea, why would Moscow risk such a decision?

Domestic motivation is weak. Russia is to hold its parliamentary elections in September, and Putin can use the annexation to boost the patriotic fervour. However, South Ossetia does not resonate with an average Russian voter as much as the Crimea did. Annexing South Ossetia might expand the scope of sanctions and make them conditional to Moscow fulfilling its commitments under the 2008 ceasefire. Add to this the lukewarm position of the North Ossetia, and the scenario becomes rather unlikely.

The July referendum can simply be a continuation of Moscow’s decades-long policy to leverage the two breakaway provinces for manipulating Tbilisi’s domestic politics and its foreign policy choices. Many observers have noted, that following the 2008 recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Russia has lost much of its leverage over Tbilisi. With the South Ossetian referendum, Moscow seems to be trying to recuperate some of lost influence.

But the crucial target to Russia’s manoeuvring over South Ossetia seems to be Putin’s arch-nemesis, the NATO. Putin has presented the 2008 war with Georgia as marking Russia’s territory against the NATO intrusion. In his April 29 interview to Swedish daily, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has reiterated the Kremlin’s willingness to counter NATO in its neighbourhood.

Moscow has been obsessed by responding – or seeming to respond – in a proportional, but asymmetric way to any NATO action. The periodic escalations of the talk about South Ossetia referendum follow the NATO-Georgia schedule closely. The Tibilov-Surkov meeting last year occurred less than two months after Tbilisi inaugurated the NATO-Georgian Joint Training and Evaluation Centre; the scheduled referendum will dovetail with the NATO-sponsored Noble Partner exercises, that will bring the heavy US armour to Georgia for the first time this May; the referendum will almost coincide with NATO’s Warsaw Summit and the expected completion of Georgia’s EU visa liberalisation process.

Annexation, interrupted?

Once the South Ossetian leader gets the licence to abolish his self-styled country’s independence in July, Moscow may decide to act, following the “Crimea scenario” or may choose to delay the decision.

The contorted way the referendum question is shaped – giving South Ossetian president the powers to demand accession to Russia, rather than requesting joining Russia outright – suggests that Moscow favours the second course of action for now.

The Kremlin will acknowledge the referendum results, and by stopping short of annexation, will leverage future annexation in its relations with Tbilisi, stroking doubts among citizens preparing to vote in Georgia’s October 2016 elections and fears of the Russian over-reaction among the jittery NATO allies.

Moscow will only decide to pull the trigger on annexation in two circumstances. Firstly, if the NATO calls Moscow’s bluff and Georgia achieves substantial progress in its Western ambitions. Secondly, if the west folds and Georgia’s western ambitions are dashed.

Until then, Moscow will keep Georgians – and their friends – nervous, guessing, and susceptible to pressure.


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