Abkhazia reaffirms will for independence as South Ossetia revives union with Russia

South Ossetian president announces plans for referendum on annexation to northern neighbour

Russian President Vladimir Putin and South Ossetian President Anatoly Bibilov in 2017.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and South Ossetian President Anatoly Bibilov in 2017. Author:
President of South Ossetia Anatoly Bibilov has revived an old idea of the political elites of the South Caucasian republic, that of joining the Russian Federation. Bibilov announced legal procedures for South Ossetia to become part of Russia will be launched after the upcoming 10 April South Ossetian presidential election. Meanwhile, Abkhazia dissociated itself from that path and insisted it does not want to renounce its independence.

Both republics, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, proclaimed themselves independent from Georgia at the end of the Soviet Union. Most countries regard them to be legally part of Georgia, although since 2008 five UN member states have recognised them as independent: Russia, Venezuela, Syria, Nicaragua, and Nauru.

The two republics have since signed several bilateral agreements with Russia, which maintains troops in both countries. For that reason, Georgia considers the two territories as Russian-occupied.

This is not the first time Bibilov has proposed South Ossetia joining the Russian Federation, as the president has been insisting on the idea since 2014. His predecessor in office, Leonid Tibilov, had already announced his willingness to hold a referendum on Russian integration in 2015, but had to back down, as the Kremlin was not warm to the idea. Bibilov, president since 2017, tried again to speed up the proposal for a union with Russia, but once again Moscow did not prioritise it.

Moscow’s first official reaction to the idea of holding a referendum in 2022 has been somewhat more favourable. Deputy chairman of the International Committee of the Federation Council (the upper house of the Russian Parliament) Andrei Klimov said “no legal barriers” exist for another republic to join the Russian Federation, and even speculated on the timeframe (4 to 6 weeks) needed to hold such referendum. A similar procedure was already used in 2014 in the annexation of Crimea.

The second official reaction, that of Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, seemed to cool down prospects. Peskov said that Russia “respects” the decisions of the South Ossetian people, but added that the Federation has taken “no legal or other action” on the issue.

It remains to be seen whether Bibilov will maintain his bid for Russian integration after the 10 April election or whether, on the contrary, his relaunching of the idea is simply part of his election campaign. It also remains to be seen whether there might really be a change of mind in the Kremlin regarding the issue or, by contrast, Moscow now prefers not to increase tensions with another neighbour —Georgia in this case— given the conflict situation in Ukraine.

We have no intention of joining the Russian Federation”

Meanwhile, Abkhazia insists it does not want to go the way of South Ossetia. Parliamentary speaker Valeri Kvarchia said: “Russia is our strategic partner, a dear and close state, but we in the republic [of Abkhazia] have no intention of joining the Russian Federation.”

Head of Abkhazia’s Security Council and former prime minister of Abkhazia Sergei Shamba meanwhile argued: “We paid a high price for independence… I don’t know any political force in Abkhazia, parties or social movements which would proceed from such a possibility of giving up independence.”

Opinion polls over the past 15 years have shown that the Abkhaz overwhelmingly support independence. According to three different polls conducted by Medium Orient Information Agency in 2011, 2013, and 2016, support for Abkhazia’s accession to the Russian Federation only reached 25% to 30% of preferences in the republic. The remaining respondents supported an independent Abkhazia, albeit some of them advocated moving closer to Russia through Commonwealth of Independent States membership.

Another 2010 survey detailing the preferences of Abkhazia’s different nationalities found out that 80 per cent of the Abkhaz supported independence while only 20 per cent vied for union with Russia. Abkhazia’s Armenian and Russian communities were more evenly divided on the issue.

On the other hand, this 2021 article by Maximilan Hess explains how political dynamics in Abkhazia are different from those in South Ossetia —although it is clear that both have a very high degree of dependence on Moscow. Nationalia too referred to that fact in a recent article by Àlex Bustos.

How do geography and demography help understand the difference?

The difference in orientation between the two republics can be better understood if the following factors are considered.

Demographically, South Ossetia (50,000 inhabitants) is considerably smaller than Abkhazia (240,000) and therefore it is a priori foreseeable that it would have more trouble in consolidating a fully functional independent state.

South Ossetians tend to see themselves as part of a single people, the Ossetians, most of whose members (90%) are citizens of the Republic of North Ossetia, which is already part of Russia. South Ossetia’s accession to Russia would, from the Ossetian point of view, be tantamount to reunification of the nation under the mantle of its protector, and would redress a historical wrong —that of Ossetia’s division into two separate union republics during the Soviet era.

In contrast, the Abkhaz see themselves as a nation per se, not so closely linked to Mother Russia and suffering from a different anguish: the feeling of having been on the verge of disappearing as a distinct people during the 20th century, dissolved within Georgia. Such a perception can be explained because the Abkhaz progressively became a demographic minority within Abkhazia, to the point that, in the 1989 Soviet census, Georgians made up 46% of the republic’s population while the Abkhaz only amounted to 18%. Even if this does not provide a justification for it, such a numerical fact helps explain why the Abkhaz expelled a large part of the Georgian population from Abkhazia after their secession from Georgia. As a result, in 2011, the Abkhaz made up 51 per cent of the population while Georgians merely amounted to 19 per cent. For this very reason, the narrative of the Abkhaz-Georgian armed conflict remains central to Abkhazians, and the war’s outcome —de facto independence— remains a result they are unwilling to relinquish.

Geography also provides some clues. South Ossetia is entirely nestled in the southern foothills of the Caucasus mountain range, wedged between Russia and Georgia, and completely landlocked. Its economic resources are scarce, as are its possibilities for developing an economic policy independent of its immediate neighbours.

In contrast, Abkhazia’s long Black Sea coastline in principle gives it more possibilities of developing autonomous trade relations with its maritime neighbours beyond Russia and Georgia, such as Turkey —with which it is linked by a large diaspora— or the European Union. The economy of Abkhazia is larger and more diversified than that of South Ossetia, with a relatively large tourism sector —although it is currently dependent on the arrival of Russian tourists.

In short, it is not unimaginable that an internationally recognised Abkhazia could have an autonomous economic life, which is however less plausible in the case of South Ossetia.