Will South Ossetia be the next Crimea?

Leonid Tibilov (left) and Vladimir Putin (right) in 2012.
Leonid Tibilov (left) and Vladimir Putin (right) in 2012. Author: Presidency of the Russian Federation
ANALYSIS. In the past months, there have been many talks about the possibility of South Ossetia holding a Crimean-style referendum to join Russia. Last October, the president of the breakaway region, Leonid Tibilov, announced his desire to hold such a referendum. This caused outrage in Georgia and the West. The international community does not recognise the independence of the region, which after years of struggle officially declared its independence from Georgia in 2008 after a short but devastating war, in which Georgia fought South Ossetian forces backed by Russia. Currently, only four countries recognise South Ossetia as an independent state: Russia, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Nauru.

A referendum would not be accepted as valid by the international community, which sees South Ossetia’s separation as an expansionist move by Russia. Nevertheless, it would seem that there is high support in the population of South Ossetia for unification with Russia, although this information comes from polls taken without the supervision of external experts.

Tibilov has proven highly inconsistent with his position over the status quo of South Ossetia. When he presented his candidacy to the presidency in 2012, he was openly against the idea of a referendum, and his programme focused on strengthening the sovereign status of the republic. However, barely a year later he stated the need for the Ossetian people to be together in a single state - referring to the possibility of South Ossetia joining North Ossetia, in the Russian Federation. It would seem that this shift in his political discourse led his party, “United Ossetia” to win the 2014 parliamentary elections. Nevertheless, they received 43% of the votes, which would be insufficient support in a referendum. So far, only the smallest faction at Parliament, "Nykhas", has come forward in support of Tibilov's proposed referendum, and therefore it remains unclear what the real outcome would be if a referendum were to be held.

It is plausible that Tibilov is using the idea of a referendum as a political tool for the upcoming presidential elections due to take place in April 2017. South Ossetia’s economy is weak, and mostly sustained by Russia. Citizens of the breakaway region may see joining Russia as a way to improve the situation in the territory, bringing more opportunities to the much-isolated region (though the extent to which joining Russia would improve the situation is a matter for debate, since Russia is currently facing economic difficulties due to the sanctions imposed by the West over the annexation of Crimea).

Whatever the reason, Tibilov appears eager to obtain a closer association with Russia, judging by his constant meetings with Moscow and open declarations about further union. However, his desire for deeper political ties is kept in check by Russia’s caution, which will not allow the political union to progress as quickly as Tibilov’s rhetoric. For example, after his official declaration in October 2015 of his intention to hold a referendum for South Ossetia’s unification with Russia, Tibilov had to backtrack on his position. On 4th April, after his meeting with the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, the South Ossetian leader announced that a referendum would indeed take place, but its aim would be to modify article 10 of the de facto constitution in order to create a ‘single union organ’. The article stipulates that "the Republic of South Ossetia has the right to enter a union with other states and to delegate to the union organs the exercise of part of its prerogatives”. It remains somewhat unclear what Tibilov has in mind for this new ‘organ’ and its functions.

However, an explanation for this ambiguity may be found in other statements made by Tibilov in the same press conference. He explained that Moscow saw the issue as an internal affair of South Ossetia, and that South Ossetia’s decision should not come at the expense of political risks for the de facto state’s strategic partner.

It therefore appears that Moscow is concerned about the geopolitical repercussions of a union between South Ossetia and Russia, as the West would regard it as an annexation and another example of Russian military imperialism. Putin is therefore dictating a slow rate of progress, aiming to achieve a gradually closer union through small ambiguous steps, which are all driven by the professed will of the South Ossetian people. In this way, Russia may seek to avoid the political repercussions that would come from a full-scale and rapid political union, without the cover of a popular vote. Whatever the strategy, Tibilov wants to take the next step as soon as possible. When he was asked about a potential date for the referendum, he said that it will take place ‘not in one year, not even in half a year, but sooner’.

Although the situation between South Ossetia and Abkhazia can be easily compared at many levels, it is quite different when it comes to the regions’ desired outcomes from their relationships with Russia. It is clear that without Russia neither of the them would be where they are today. However, while South Ossetia’s aspirations have tended towards unification with Russia, Abkhazia wants an internationally recognised independence. These desired relationships can be easily found in the regions’ bilateral agreements with Russia and their drafting negotiations. On the one hand, South Ossetia signed the Treaty on Union Relations in March 2015, which provides for closer cooperation between the armed forces and security structures of South Ossetia and Russia. It failed to include a referendum on its incorporation into Russia, which had been included in the first draft as requested by Tskhinvali. Nevertheless, it still included elements establishing deep integration. Abkhazia on the other hand signed the Agreement on Alliance and Strategic Partnership in November 2014. This agreement raised concerns among Abkhazians, as many saw the first draft as a thhreat to the self-proclaimed independence and a declaration of intention on behalf of Russia to conduct a potential future annexation. Moscow was forced to edit the draft, including the removal of the word ‘integration’ contained in the title, and the stipulation that a joint group of Abkhazian and Russian military forces would be commanded by Russia. The final version also obliges Russia to support Abkhazia's diplomatic efforts to ensure international recognition as a sovereign state.

Therefore, despite the fact that both breakaway regions heavily depend on Russia military and economically (especially after the treaties were signed), they differ in terms of long-term goals. These examples illustrate that, in general, Abkhazia would be much more reluctant to become part of Russia - whereas unification in South Ossetia might already be underway sooner than everyone expected.