Researcher at the Rondeli Foundation
The year of 2016 went by without much fuss with respect to the occupied territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The situation along the Administrative Boundary Line with South Ossetia remained largely stable even though the movement of the Line of Occupation and the installation of barbed wires, as well as routine detentions of local community members did flare up tensions. A question of so called referendum stirred much ado in Tskhinvali at the onset of 2016 and the Geneva talks remained on the agenda but without yielding considerable progress. Presidential elections are planned to be held in the beginning of 2017 in the occupied South Ossetia, however, it is very unlikely that their results may drastically change the situation there.
The question of the referendum
In March 2015 Russia and ‘South Ossetia’ signed ‘an agreement’ on cooperation and integration. On 19 October 2015 ‘president Tibilov of South Ossetia’ stated that a referendum would be held in 2016 in ‘South Ossetia’ to gauge the extent to which the idea of unification with the Russian Federation enjoyed popular support. The above statement was made after Tibilov’s meeting with a Russian curator of Abkhazia and South Ossetia Vladislav Surkov. Interestingly, de-facto parliament of South Ossetia had already upheld the idea of the referendum as early as in 2014. Discussions around the referendum was high on the agenda in Tskhinvali during winter and spring in 2016. In April 2016 the Russian president declared that Russia would not oppose the referendum in South Ossetia. However, already in May, in a joint statement the ‘president’ Tibilov and the ‘speaker’ of the parliament Bibilov informed the public that the referendum had been called off in 2017 and would be held after the completion of the presidential elections. If the referendum is to be held, an overwhelming majority of voters is very likely to say yes to the unification with Russia.
One group of experts believed that the initiative came from Tskhinvali and reflected political competition among the local elites rather than being inspired by Moscow. The political groups wanted to demonstrate their support to the idea of greater integration with Russia and by doing so gain popular support. On the other hand, the second group of experts sow Moscow’s trace behind the idea which seemed as a warning for Georgia on possible unification of South Ossetia with Russia, should the former pursue its agenda for further integration with the EU or NATO. Interestingly, most of Russian experts, including those close to the Kremlin like Alexey Makarkin and Alexander Markedonov  uphold the explanation proposed by the first group and attribute the idea of the referendum to Tskhinvali’s internal political battle.
It is yet not clear whether or not the idea of the referendum will be back on the agenda in 2017, but presumably this is not going to be the case. Unlike the annexation of Crimea approved and backed up by the majority of Russia’s population and resulted in raising Putin’s rating, annexation of ‘South Ossetia’ will fail to bring about considerable positive internal political outcomes. At the same time, it will reinforce a reputation of Russia as a country who can go at length to seize lands of other countries. However, for Russia, who has been striving to get rid of sanctions imposed on in and revisit relationships with the US’s new administrations, this option should not be the most preferable one.
Borderization and Detention
Borderization, or unilateral installation of barbed wire fences and construction of other border infrastructure has been one of the key factors threatening stabilization at the local level over the course of many years. Russian border guards argue that they use a map of the Soviet General Headquarters for 1980s. However, the fact that the border demarcated in accordance to this map always moves forward and never backward, raises concerns. On the other hand, because of legal aspects, the Georgian authorities are forced to refuse to participate in the Tskhinvali brokered delimitation-demarcation process. What is also concerning, is direct or indirect claims occasionally made by Tskhinvali’s representatives on other Georgian territories as ‘Ossetian heritage’. During negotiations held in 2016 representatives of Tskhinvali numerously raised issues related to the protection of cultural monuments in ‘Eastern Ossetia’ (Truso gorge).
The reluctance of the Russian side to share the map with which they demarcate border with the Georgian side is yet another concern which makes us think that Russia saves the opportunity to at least use the moving border as an instrument for leverage against Georgia.
Installation of barbed wire fences heavily affects socio-economic standing of the local population. For instance, as a result of the installation of barbed wire fence in the village of Jariasheni, some local residence can no longer access their houses or farmlands. The situation is largely shared by each and every village affected by the borderization.
Detention of local residents by Russian border guards continues to remain of the key issues since the end of 2008 war. Detentions happen systematically and affect mostly those citizens of Georgia who live in the proximity to the Administrative Line and happen to cross to the other side either by accident or for agricultural or household issues (to look for lost cattle, collect firewood or jonjoli etc). Detained citizens are transferred to Tskhinvali and released shortly after paying administrative fine (within the range 1000 rubles). In 2016 Russian border guards detained 134 persons for illegal crossing of so called state border. According to statistics released by ‘the Ministry of Interior’ of South Ossetia 549 persons were detained in 2016 with 325 being native to South Ossetia.
It should be noted that the number of long-term detentions has decreased after the simultaneous release of prisoners few years ago. However, overall number of detentions remains high. The core of the problem is probably the fact that the Russian Federation encourages its border guards to detain citizens even in those cases where ‘suspects’ are clearly local residents who can be easily returned across the Administrative Line without much trouble.
Freedom of movement, trade
Freedom of movement, rather its absence, continues to remain one of the burning problems for the local communities. Except for residents of Akhalgori rayon with a special permission, there are no effective ways for Georgian citizens to access the South Ossetian territory. As for South Ossetian residents, only a handful is allowed to cross to the Georgian controlled territory through Akhalgori and Perevi-Sinaguri checkpoints. However, it is no secret that a considerable part of ‘South Ossetia’s’ population regularly visits Georgia’s various regions. For this they have to travel to North Ossetia and then cross through Larsi border checkpoint.
Officially the Administrative Boundary Line has been closed for trade by Tskhinvali. Those crossing to Akhalgori can carry consumables and goods for their personal use. However, unofficial information suggests that most of consumables is transferred to Tskhinvali region through this very checkpoint. Even though there have been cases of transferring Georgian vegetables and fruits to South Ossetia through Russia, they are not many.
Based on a statement made by a head of ‘South Ossetia’s Customs Committee’ Murat Tskhovrebov, a customs checkpoint may be opened in the entrance of Akhalgori in near future to custom goods and commodities brought from Georgia As declared by Tskhinvali’s representatives, during the summer season the amount of fruits and vegetables from Georgia exceeded 200 tons in Summer.
Sadly, there does not seem to be a precondition which would lead to a simplified regime of movement even though this would have significantly improved economic and social standing of Tskhinvali region. As of today, it is unlikely for ‘South Ossetian government’ to initiate any negotiation with this regard.
It should be noted that the Georgian Military Road was closed for several weeks because of a landslide that struck in summer 2016 and most trucks had to travel to Russia through Azerbaijan. However, trucks with Armenian plates were unable to do so. According to unofficial information the Armenian government pleaded the Russian authorities to allow Armenian trucks stuck in this situatioin to use the Transcaucasian Highway (a highway cutting through the Roki tunnel). However, Russia’s response was categorically negative.
In spite of Russia’s rigid position, a question of the Transcaucasian Highway may be back on the agenda because of natural disasters being on a rise in Dariali gorge.
Around 400 Russian soldiers are deployed at Fourth Guards military base located in South Ossetia’s Java rayon and Tskhinvali with some parts deployed in Akhalgori. There is a training ground in Dzartsemi. Based on information provided by the Russian Ministry of Defense 1500 military servants, 500 units of military machinery including T72 tanks, Acacia and Gvazdika self-propelled Akatsya and Gvazdika howitzer and unmanned aerial vehicles participated in military trainings held in Dzartsemi. The same source stresses that the trainings aimed at mastering the most upgraded military equipment for both defensive and offensive operations. 
As stipulated by the ‘Alliance and Integration Agreement’ of 18 March 2015, the process of integrating ‘South Ossetia’s’ defense and security forces into analogous Russian structure has already launched. Pursuant to the Agreement, part of South Ossetia’s armed forces will report directly to Russia’s military command while the rest will remain in ‘South Ossetian army’. The Agreement also envisages the abolishment of customs control between the two countries while a common defense and security space will also be created. Foreign policy and border control will be subject to Moscow’s effective control. Russia will take responsibility for the region’s social and economic development. Importantly, subsidies provided by Russia account for 90 per cent of Tskhinvali’s budget.
In addition to Russian military bases, ‘South Ossetia’ currently homes around 1200 staff of the border forces responsible for the protection of and patrolling over the ‘borders’.
The military base operates pursuant to the 2010 ‘agreement’ without much changes to its constitution for the past few years.
People to people contacts
As mentioned above, ‘South Ossetian government’ has been strict in limiting people to people contracts which would serve as grounds for confidence building. Activities of peacebuilding organizations on the territory of Tskhinvali region, both local and international, are extremely restricted.
On the other hand, the Georgian authorities continue to provide free of charge medical assistance to population residing on the occupied territories. The effort has yielded some, yet limited impact. Rigid position demonstrated by the ‘authorities’ in Tskhinvali makes it impossible to implement new initiatives by both official Tbilisi and international community. Sadly, it seems that 2017 is not likely to offer something substantial in this regard.
The negotiation process
Both Geneva international talks and Incident Prevention and Response Mechanism meetings continued to take place throughout 2016.
There were four rounds of the talks held in Georgia. First working group discussed security issues, while the other focused on IDP and humanitarian status. The possibility to arrive to a joint statement on non-use of force remains the key issue for the first working group. International security guarantees have also been on the agenda for several years, however, the parties have failed to reach a consensus on this issue. Discussions around security issues have been tightly linked to question of Tskhinvali region’s legal status, which makes it practically impossible for parties to come to a consensus.
11 meetings were held under the Incident Prevention and Response Mechanism meetings. The hotline enabling the parties to respond to incidents in a timely manner continues to operate.
Georgia continued to traditionally submit a resolution on the returnee of IDPs to the UN in 2016. The resolution was adopted with 76 votes against 15, which is regarded a better result than in previous years.
It should be noted that issues related to Abkhazia and South Ossetia are steadily losing international attention. On the one hand the trend seems quite natural as the more time passes since the war, the less attention it gets. However, the annexation of Crimea has made the international community to revisit their view on 2008 war. Also, as a result of developments unfolding in Crimea and eastern part of Ukraine, Russian has found itself under strict sanctions from the West.
The Georgian authorities have had the chance to make a connection between the issues of occupied territories in Georgia and Ukraine and ensure that Abkhazia and South Ossetia were mentioned in reasons behind imposing sanctions against Russia, but Tbilisi chose to pursue another path.
So called ‘presidential elections’ are planned to take part in Tskhinvali in the beginning of 2017. Analysts believe that acting leader Leonid Tibilov and so called parliamentary spokesperson Anatoli Bibilov will be main rivals. Many argue that Bibilov is stronger supporter of full integration with Russia while Tibilov has maintained a moderate position. It was a strong emphasis on Russian issues that brought Bibilov’s ‘United Ossetia’ party the victory over 2014 parliamentarian elections. However, it is less likely that results of upcoming elections may have any major effects either on peace process or the relationship with the external role.
What is 2017 going to bring? In the nutshell, it is a bottleneck without quick remedies. The referendum and accelerated integration with Russia is less likely to happen but not completely excluded either. Georgian related rhetoric may get even more severe because of the planned ‘elections’ while Tskhinvali is very likely to remain inaccessible to the international community.
Perhaps the only area which allows some food for thoughts for little progress is trade and transit movement. In light of Russia lacking ways for fighting off economic crisis, trade remains for Tskhinvali the only feasible way for generating its own income.