Executive Director, Caucasian House
Source: Originally this article was published at Netgazeti.ge in Georgian
Seven years have passed since the August 2008 war between Russia and Georgia and the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia by Russia. Encouraged by the Russian annexation of Crimea, ostensibly doomed aspiration of South Ossetia’s unification with the Russian Federation has reappeared on the political agenda.
Idea of referendum was expressed several times, and after meeting with Russian president in the spring, Leonid Tibilov announced summer of 2016 as the holding date. However, referendum agreed with Kremlin was once again postponed, this time, to 2017.
It is doubtful that such decision was made by de-facto authorities. It seems Russia is not interested in finally spoiling the relations with Georgia, especially, when rising Euro-skepticism in Georgia should be giving chance to the emergence of new perspectives for Russia (According to the latest polls, 24% of Georgian population supports Georgia’s integration with the Eurasian Union, while 58% with the European Union). 
South Ossetia’s national project
Against a common practice of boiling Georgian–Ossetian and Georgian-Abkhaz conflicts in the same pot, there are apparent fundamental differences between the two. And so are South Ossetian and Abkhaz visions for future different from each other. While the Abkhaz have always been dreaming of building an independent state, Ossetians have always been looking at opportunities to run from one state into another.
Importantly, the other and bigger North Ossetia already exists within the Russian Federation. For comparison: the population of North Ossetia is 15 times as big as the one of South Ossetia (North Ossetia – seven hundred thousand. South Ossetia – from thirty to fifty thousand). Therefore, South Ossetians are convinced that they will be better protected in a unified Ossetian state. Because of this very reason, an independent state has never been an aspiration for them and mainly served as a means for their ‘transfer’ from Georgia to Russia (in this case Ossetia is like a passenger who is waiting in a transit zone at the airport).
Reasons behind the Re-activation of the Matter
In spite of the idea of unification (which never enjoyed particular popular support in North Ossetia!) dominating the mood in Tskhinvali, it was still close to unimaginable that Russia would recognize the independence of South Ossetia even in July 2008. However, in the light of the recognition and investment of huge financial resources by Russia in the ‘independence project’ of this modest formation (since 2008 to present Russia has spent approximately 1 billion USD in South Ossetia) giving up their own state would put the South Ossetian political elite in an awkward position.
However, the annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation brought about drastic changes. It is well remembered in Tskhinvali how events of international scale can influence their own political fate (here we mean the role of Kosovo’s recognition for South Ossetia and Abkhazia), therefore Russia’s actions in Ukraine had pushed some hopes to resurfaced.
It is difficult to assert what percentage of the South Ossetian population actually supports the idea of unification with Russia. However, there is little doubt that supporters are in the majority. One needs to take into consideration growing discontent as a result of widespread corruption – since 2008, approximately 27 billion Russian rubles disappeared; unresolved economic and social problems which has snowballed into disappointment towards the own state and the country’s political elite. As a consequence, a paradigm of the irreversibility of the unification with Russia during years is growing stronger.
The 2017 Presidential Elections and Referendum
Based on the aforementioned, it is evident that by 2017 presidential elections the unification question will become even more charged politically. Presumably, candidates will compete not as much as how to resolve economic, social and other pressing issues, but rather about who will be the fastest in leading South Ossetia to Russia. In fact, this tendency became nascent as early as in 2014 when the parliamentary elections unfolded in the context of debates among political parties around this very issue.
It can be assumed that the de-facto president – Leonid Tibilov, has already kicked off the pre-election campaign as he recently voiced the idea of holding a referendum. The South Ossetian political elite have attempted to promote the idea of the referendum on several occasions within past few years (before that, referenda on the status of south Ossetia were held in 1992 and 2006).
During the last meeting with Vladimir Putin in Moscow (31 march, 2016) Leonid Tibilov again requested a permission to hold referendum and received a partial consent to his request. Until recent there was “green light” from Kremlin to hold the referendum tentatively in summer 2016 with aim to amend the constitution so that President will be authorized under the Parliament’s consent to initiate the process of South Ossetia’s unification with Russia.
In a nutshell, in spite of Tskhinvali’s willingness to hold a referendum on the unification with Russia, Moscow only sanctioned the constitutional amendment, which considerably diminishes the political weight of the upcoming referendum. But in late may referendum was once again postponed, this time for 2017.
Russia’s Refusal to the Annexation of South Ossetia
With a strong likelihood in a mid-term perspective (at least 5 years) there will be no annexation of South Ossetia by Russia. This assumption is backed up with interplay of two key factors (no offence to the South Ossetian political elite but they are not likely to influence either of them): a nature of Georgian-Russian relations and the degree of success of the implementation of Georgia’s western agenda.
Authorities ascending to power as a result of the 2012 parliamentary elections in Georgia (Georgian Dream coalition) made the normalization with Russia one of the key priorities. In fact, thanks to bilateral efforts, Georgian-Russian relations have partially stabilised: regular flights have been restored, embargo lifted off Georgian products, cultural-humanitarian contacts have intensified as harsh and aggressive rhetoric gave its way to comparatively softer approaches.
In spite of the fact that issues related to Abkhazia and South Ossetia still remain contested (Russia is not going to revoke their recognition, nor does Georgia intend to give up its territorial integrity), the degree of heat has considerably dropped.
Although ruling coalition of Georgian Dream, the main advocate of Georgian-Russian normalization, dropped apart, it is highly likely after parliamentary elections party Georgian Dream will manage to create new governing coalition. In addition, it seems that euro sceptic forces will also be represented in a new parliament. Respectively, Georgian-Russian relations, if not further melted, are at least likely to remain the same aftermath the elections. Moreover, it is highly unlikely that they will return to previous antagonism.
In the context of developments in Georgia taking the course which, if not fully beneficial to Russia, at least does not cross strictly with the Russian interests, it would be curious to think of de-jure annexation of South Ossetia. Moreover, if one considers the fact that Russia is running short of its arsenal and is left only with Abkhazia and South Ossetia to play with, the annexation of one of the latter will further minimise few leverages of influence available to the Russian Federation.
Georgian Western Dimension
Georgia’s foreign policy with its undoubtedly pro-western course represents the most challenging segment of Georgian-Russian relations. If there is any consistency in the legacy of the Georgian statehood, it is within the foreign policy.
There is a dominant myth on Russia’s policy being unpredictable, often inflexible and harsh. However, empirical observations over its actions, even in post-Soviet space suggest otherwise (harshness being the only exception). It is true that Russia uses conflicts to pursue its own interest and broaden the scope of its influence and exert pressure on the neighbours, however, methods are diverse and follow certain logical pathway (regardless of whether or not we like it).
Following this logic, there were attempts to change the status quo in Ukraine and Georgia in 2014 and 2008 respectively. Russia perceived (what is important here is perceptions rather than the degree of their objectivity) these changes as damaging its own interest.
The validity of this thesis well demonstrated by “treaties” concluded by Russia with South Ossetia (Treaty for Alliance and Integration) and Abkhazia (Treaty on Alliance and Strategic Partnership) which came as a response to signing of Association Agreement between Georgia and the EU in 2014. Respectively, we can assume that the more successful Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic path is, the more likely the annexation of South Ossetia by Russia will become.
Considering the international state of affairs and the west’s attitude towards further enlargement (equally concerns both NATO and the EU) it is not likely that Georgia is going to become a part of any western structures in mid-term perspective. Therefore, for the purpose of bargaining with Georgia, Russia is to be fully content with the current political status of South Ossetia, especially taking into account the level of control over situation in latter: 92% of the budget is constituted by Russian financial support, by treaty from march 2015 South Ossetian military forces will be integrated into Russian and last but not least – contrary from other entities as local population also political elite of South Ossetia is fully loyal towards Moscow.
Finally, postponing of the referendum could be explained by several reasons: a) outcome of Georgian parliamentary elections do matter and will influence Russia’s policies b) Kremlin wants elections in South Ossetia to be held with minimal attention from outside (referendum and elections planned to be conducted simultaneously); c) there is no need for Moscow for further escalation of the relations with west at the moment.
Based on the circumstances outlined above and in spite of attempts taken by local politicians, South Ossetia seems to be trapped in its forced ‘independence’ for quite some time. However, extremely fast pace of the development of processes worldwide makes us think that we cannot write off any potential scenario of how events will unfold.
 South Ossetia to Hold referendum on Joining Russian in 2017. http://sputniknews.com/world/20160526/1040299181/south-ossetia-russia-referendum.html
 Number of supporters of Eurasian Union decreased – NDI. http://www.interpressnews.ge/en/politicss/74780-number-of-supporters-of-eurasian-union-decreased-ndi.html?ar=A
 Stephen Jones. South Ossetia’s unwanted independence. https://www.opendemocracy.net/od-russia/stephen-f-jones/south-ossetia%E2%80%99s-unwanted-independence