Prospects for Russian-South Ossetian relations amid the Crimea and Abkhazia crises

Tamara Terashvili, independent journalist


This article is a version of the paper delivered at a roundtable organised by International Alert on 28 July 2014 entitled '(Mis-)calculations in the Caucasus: The political crisis in Abkhazia and new geo-political challenges for the region'. Read articles by other speakers here.

The idea of reunifying South and North Ossetia, primarily through South Ossetia’s accession to the Russian Federation, has been raised repeatedly at different plebiscites held in South Ossetia throughout its years of independence. Referenda were held in 1992 and 2006, and the questions put to public vote reflected the geopolitical situation around South Ossetia and its domestic political landscape. On 19 January 1992, at the height of the Georgian-Ossetian confrontation, South Ossetia held a referendum on national independence and reunification with Russia. The referendum was the result of a drawn-out war of legislation between South Ossetia and its former colonial power Georgia. It brought with it hopes of security and an opportunity to draw the international community’s attention to the problem of South Ossetia, with the objective of achieving a speedy resolution to the prolonged and bloody conflict they had been locked in. The referendum on independence of 12 November 2006 was held on the same day as the scheduled presidential elections, with the aim of securing the maximum electoral turnout that would ensure a guaranteed return to the presidential seat and another term in office for the then President Eduard Kokoity.

The Crimean referendum

The more recent referendum on the status of Crimea and the subsequent application for Crimea to be incorporated into the Russian Federation, as well as Russia’s immediate positive response, once again revived hopes of a large part of the South Ossetian population of the prospect of the Republic of South Ossetia’s accession to the Russian Federation. Some political leaders have been actively promoting the idea of joining the Russian Federation, speculating on Ossetian society’s fear of a hypothetical repeat of the Georgian-Ossetian conflict.

Accession supporters argue their position, in particular, from the point of view of security and non-resumption of military aggression from Georgia, which occurred in the early 90s, and, especially, in August 2008. They do not explain, however, how and following what formula unification can be achieved. The population, who is not always able to analyse and monitor the geopolitical developments in the region, is fed the idea that this can be achieved by means of a referendum. Yet Russian opinion about the undesirability of such a move is disregarded. Moscow is well aware that South Ossetia’s accession will change the status of the August 2008 war, turning it from a liberation war into a war of aggression. Moscow’s objectives have been achieved and today it no longer needs to incorporate South Ossetia into the Russian Federation. Russian military bases are legitimately deployed on South Ossetian territory, backed by intergovernmental agreements; they provide security both for South Ossetia and for the Russian Federation’s southern borders.

The second reason why the majority of the population is striving for accession to the Russian Federation lies in the total lack of competence of the local administration, who are incapable of resolving socio-economic problems. On a number of occasions, the local administration has been unable to respond properly to Russia’s proposals, which has continuously interrupted rehabilitation processes and negatively affected the reputation of the Russian Federation. Ossetian society tends to think that, in the case of accession, the problem of incompetence will decline, while social and economic issues will be dealt with more effectively.

The question of South Ossetian accession to the Russian Federation pops up in the rhetoric of South Ossetian politicians at each election. At the same time, none of the political parties has consistently pursued this agenda because they are well aware of the futility of such actions and use the slogan mainly for speculative purposes. One cannot help but feel that the vast majority of South Ossetian politicians use the rhetoric to hide their inability to assess adequately political processes in the region and in South Ossetia proper. Their typical approach is as follows: “We cannot return to normality by ourselves. Let’s leave this job to Russia.” Supporters of South Ossetian independence are labelled narrow minded, at best, lacking any sense of reality.

The Abkhaz crisis and South Ossetian politics

In May 2014 Abkhazia experienced an internal political crisis, which resulted in the resignation of President Ankvab. Many experts and analysts tend to project the current situation in Abkhazia on to South Ossetia and, given the similar set of internal political problems, typical of both the independent republics, predict the possibility of a similar scenario in South Ossetia. For my part, I do not think that such developments are likely to occur in South Ossetia today. The difference between the two lies in the fact that there are a number of influential and well-organised opposition forces that make up the political scene in Abkhazia, that are grouped around the leader of the Forum for the National Unity of Abkhazia, Raul Khajimba. There is no such opposition in South Ossetia.

Attempts to create an opposition, especially of the organised kind had been quite successfully stamped out by the former President Eduard Kokoity. Moreover, President Tibilov, when still a presidential candidate in the 2012 elections, was a kind of compromise figure for both the pro-Kokoity and the anti-Kokoity forces, who did not present any threat to any of the warring parties at the time. Unlike Ankvab, President Tibilov has not taken any significant steps to strengthen his own power and indeed, does not resort to drastic measures in domestic politics. It is his inaction, as well as his failure to select the right people, and a whole set of unresolved socio-economic problems that cause the general dissatisfaction of the public. There is no leader or any force in the country that is able to offer an alternative to the existing system.

The results of the 8 June 2014 South Ossetian parliamentary elections, with none of the political parties supported by the authorities attracting the required number of votes, and political veterans such as the Communist Party and the Unity Party not winning any seats in Parliament for the first time in many years, illustrate popular dissatisfaction with the current government. This protest vote proved to be one of the factors that ensured the victory of the United Ossetia Party, which had presented itself as the party of opposition to the current government. The people of South Ossetian have not quite reached the point when they would be ready to express their protest through street actions and still resort to lawful means of expressing their dissatisfaction.

Unfortunately, after the August war, South Ossetia has been unable to effectively use the most favourable nation regime that the Russian Federation had extended to it for the purpose of development. Despite the fact that the relationship between South Ossetia and Russia moved to a qualitatively different level after August 2008, South Ossetia has not been able to take it beyond the level of a Russian aid recipient. At the same time, the need for South Ossetia to move to a qualitatively new state has been apparent for quite some time. In my opinion, the only way out of this situation is to transform the South Ossetian-Russian relationship from that of dependency to that of partnership, when each of the parties undertakes certain obligations with respect to the other.