During the campaign for the presidential election in South Ossetia, a Russian-backed breakaway region in Georgia, incumbent president Anatolii Bibilov said that he would take legal steps to join the Russian Federation. Why now?

South Ossetia – a non-recognized de facto state on the de jure territory of Georgia in the South Caucasus – regained international attention during the last weeks of Russia’s so-called „special military operation“, effectively a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. On March 30th, Analtolii Bibilov, the incumbent president of South Ossetia, declared that he intends to take the necessary legal steps for South Ossetia to join the Russian Federation. The goal is to eventually ‘unify’ the region with its direct neighbour and kin region in Russia, the Republic of North Ossetia – Alania. Both these steps shall be subject to a referendum. The unification of the two entities into one single Ossetia has been a strategic goal of North and South Ossetia since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Bibilov’s declaration comes at a time when Leonid Pasechnik, Head of the self-declared Lugansk People’s Republic, which was recognised by Russia as independent on February 21st, 2022, said that a referendum to join the Russian Federation may take place soon. On top of this, and somehow more cautiously, Denis Pushilin, Head of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic (recognised by Russia as independent on the same day), said that the question of a possible referendum to join the Russian Federation is a topic for discussion after the “de-occupation of the territory.” By this, Pushilin means the seizure of the whole oblast’ (region) of Donetsk, the majority of which was is still under Ukrainian control prior to Russia’s invasion.

Why now? What has changed is that this time, several Russian politicians expressed their open support for the integration. If taken in the context of the Russian war in Ukraine and a possible territorial expansion beyond Russia’s officially recognised borders, the possibility of the annexation of South Ossetia – thus far officially halted – must be monitored. Any possible step in this direction would have serious consequences for the stability not only of the South Caucasus, but wherever territorial conflicts and secessionist tensions are present, such as in the Balkans, the rest of the post-Soviet space, and several other countries in the Asia-Pacific region. Yet, local commentators wondered to what extent Bibilov’s proposal is timely. Some claim that this is the incumbent president’s last attempt to remain in power.

Zrx44, Anatoliy Bibilov EO, cropped, CC BY-SA 4.0

Bibilov proposed the referendum during the troubled electoral campaign for the South Ossetian presidential elections. Although he claimed that the proposal is not related to the campaign, the difficulties that the incumbent president has been facing tell another story. As an example, on April 10th, 2022, during the first round, the electoral turnout was 82.07% and saw five candidates competing. Among these, the candidates accessing the second and final turn of the elections are Bibilov and former KGB operative Alan Gagloev. The latter led the polls with 36.9% of votes, receiving roughly one thousand votes more than Bibilov, who obtained 33.5%. The International Community does not recognise the elections as legitimate. All the opposition parties are supporting Gagloev in the second round. Originally, this was supposed to take place on April 28th. Yet the Supreme Court of South Ossetia rescheduled the elections for May 8th. To this regard, Bibilov and voters form North Ossetia formerly expressed their concerns on voting during a working day, as April 28th (today, editor note) is a Thursday.

The territorial conflict about South Ossetia since the 1990s

After a brief but intense war of secession, the Russian Federation brokered a ceasefire between Georgia and South Ossetia in June 1992. The ceasefire included deploying a Joint Peacekeeping force including Russian, Georgian, North and South Ossetian troops. During the 1990s, the relations between Georgia and South Ossetia were sustained through informal business and daily contact among locals. With the new turn given to Georgia by former President Mikhail Saakashvili in the aftermath of the 2003 Rose Revolution and his attempt to establish the rule of law and centralise the state’s power, relations between Tbilisi and Tskhinvali, the respective Georgian and South Ossetian capitals cooled down. In 2004, Saakashvili seized control of the de facto independent Republic of Ajaria on the Southern Black Sea Coast of Georgia and enforced the closure of the Ergneti Market, a place of informal trade and smuggling on the administrative line between South Ossetia and Georgia proper.

The pro-Western trajectory of the Saakashvili administration and its goal of establishing the sovereignty of the central government all over the country led to increasing tensions with Russia and the breakaway Republic of Abkhazia. The latter also had fought a bloody war of secession with Georgia between 1992 and 1993 with covert Russian support. Amidst rising tensions, NATO welcomed in principle membership of Georgia (and Ukraine) in the joint declaration of the Bucharest Summit in 2008. Expecting Western and especially American support, Saakashvili launched a military operation in South Ossetia on August 5th, 2008, after the shelling of Georgian villages on the contact line by South Ossetian militias. As a reaction, Russia invaded into Georgia and pushed its military back to Tbilisi, conducting incursions and bombings from Abkhazia and the Black Sea. After five days of fighting, France, then holding the rotating EU chairmanship, brokered a ceasefire plan between Russia and Georgia. After the war, Russia recognised South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states. Only a handful of UN member states joined Russia in recognising the two entities: Nicaragua, Venezuela, Nauru, and Syria. The other member states consider the two regions as lawfully part of Georgia, which considers them as Russian occupied territories.

A Referendum to join Russia?

South Ossetia already expressed the intention to join the Russian Federation (in two referendums in 1992 and 2006 and in a statement by its president in 2017). Yet, this time some observers argue that Russia might be interested in supporting such a decision. However, other local observers argue that Russia would agree to incorporate South Ossetia only if Bibilov wins the elections, even though no other candidate speaks against such an initiative during the electoral campaign. This time, however, according to local observers, such a move might backfire as it shows the few alternatives left to Bibilov, who promised such a referendum already during the 2017 elections. At that time, this proposal helped him to win. Yet, this time,  it apparently did not help him much during the first round of the elections.

South Ossetia is not only reliant on Russia. It is highly integrated with the Russian Federation already. Hence, the assumption is credible that the announcement of a referendum and aspirations to join Russia were coordinated with political decision-makers in Moscow. South Ossetia’s state budget is 90% funded from Russian public finances; almost the entire population of the Republic are Russian citizens, and the South Ossetian army is part of the Russian one. The 4th Russian military base deployed in South Ossetia hosts about 4000 Russian troops according to Russian sources, on top of at least 900 FSB border guards (Federalnaya Sluzhba Bezopasnosti, the Russian Federal Security Services). In 2015, a local census estimated a total population in the region of about 53,500 people, Russian troops excluded.

Giorgi Kakulia (Cropped by Gaga.Vaa), Irakli Garibashvili 2013. 2 (cropped), cropped, CC BY-SA 3.0

Reactions from Russia came swiftly. Although Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov did not articulate any definite position on the issue, he noted that steps for the unification should respect the opinion of the population of South Ossetia (which is for accession). On the other hand, relevant members of the “United Russia” party sitting in the Russian parliament (the State Duma and the Council of the Federation) welcomed Bibilov’s proposal. For instance, Andrey Klimov, the deputy chairman of the International Affairs Committee of the Council of the Federation, underlined that Russian law provides for the integration of external territorial units into the Federation and that there are no legal obstacles to the will of the South Ossetian people to join Russia. Artyom Turov, Deputy Chairman of the State Duma Committee on the Commonwealth of Independent States, Eurasian Integration and Relations with Compatriots, declared that Bibilov’s declaration could be only supported. According to him, South Ossetia is part of the Russky Mir (Russian World) and this proposal enforces the principle of self-determination of the South Ossetian people to choose their vector of development. On top of this, Viktor Vodolatsky, first deputy chairman of the same committee, went so far in saying that the referendum could take place as early as May or June this year. Finally, the Head of North Ossetia, Sergey Menyaylo, also expressed his support for unification.

Georgia’s difficult position since the start of Russia’s war against Ukraine

Georgian authorities condemned Bibilov’s declaration. Yet, the Georgian Government led by the Georgian Dream party tried to downplay the statement as nothing new. The Georgian opposition criticised the soft stance of the Government against Russia in regard to the war in Ukraine as facilitating the annexation. Georgia did not join Western sanctions against Russia, justified by Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili as a pragmatic decision. According to him, Georgian sanctions would be ineffective and more harmful to the Georgian population than Russia itself. Therefore, they would be against the national interest of the country. On this, Georgia took a similar position to Moldova, also affected by an unresolved conflict of secession in Transnistria. Such a decision sparked criticism by Ukrainian authorities, who decided to recall their ambassador to Georgia, and by the Georgian opposition and civil society, who demonstrated strong support for Ukraine in their fight against the Russian invasion. Yet it is worth noting that Georgian civil society also addressed a letter to the Georgian Government that underlined the necessity to the conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia solve only through peaceful means.

How Developments in South Ossetia could affect Abkhazia

In the aftermath of Bibilov’s declaration, Abkhaz authorities, opposition, and civil society groups, including the Armenian Community of Abkhazia, rushed to declare that Abkhazia is and remains an independent state as enshrined in its constitution and that it does not seek to become part of the Russian Federation. As underlined by President Bzhania, the 2014 Treaty on Union and Strategic Partnership regulates the relationship between Abkhazia and Russia. Russia signed with South Ossetia a similar Treaty on Union and Integration in 2015, modelled on the agreement with Abkhazia. Whereas the treaty with Abkhazia underlines in several articles the respect for its sovereignty and independence and looks for equal interstate relation, partnership, and cooperation at the military and economic level, such references are absent from the treaty signed with South Ossetia. The anxiety of Abkhaz society and politics about the independence of their small republic is visible in several facts. One is the reluctance to conclude an agreement with Russia over the possibility to sell Abkhaz real estate to foreigners, the fruit of a longstanding disagreement between the Kremlin and the Caucasian republic. Even more recently, the Abkhaz Ministry of Foreign affairs threatened to declare persona non grata those Russian political analysts advocating for Abkhazia’s annexation and incorporation into the Russian Federation.

Yet another example is the criticism of Abkhazia’s 2020 Foreign Policy Concept. The discussions led to the elimination of a paragraph advocating for the possibility to create a bilateral multilevel platform with Georgia to discuss issues of mutual interest not envisioned in the Geneva International Discussion (GID). In this negotiation format, Abkhazian and South Ossetian delegates participate in their personal capacity in the working group on humanitarian issues, dealing primarily with the question of the right of IDPs in Georgian controlled areas to their homes in the breakaway regions. The amount of Georgian IDPs from Abkhazia amounts to almost the population of Abkhazia proper (200’000 and 240’000 respectively), and the ethnic Abkhaz population makes up only slightly more than half of the population of the breakaway region.

Hence, the question of demography is strongly connected with the Abkhaz fear of losing independence, if not facing outright extinction. Therefore, recognition by Georgia remains for Abkhazia a top priority, before any other possible engagement. Yet, the GID are still the only remaining platform where delegates from Georgia, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia engage with each other. The working group on security issues, in contrast, remains limited to discussions between Georgian and Russian delegates. In a lengthy interview released on Russian state media RIA Novosti, the incumbent South Ossetian President stated that Georgia does not represent a concrete threat to the path of the small republic towards Russia, simply because they were too afraid of a renewed military confrontation with Russia.

Fragmentation of Georgia?

Even if Georgian society opposes a war with Abkhazia and South Ossetia  – to the extent that Tbilisi strongly criticised the Ukrainian proposal to open a second front against Russia – the Russian annexation of South Ossetia could have serious consequences on the political stability of the entire state. According to the former Minister for Reconciliation and Civic Equality, Paata Zakareisvhili, current developments constitute a Russian attempt to further blackmail the Georgian government. Indeed, the threat of possible incorporation of South Ossetia into the Russian Federation would constrain the foreign policy agenda of Georgia even further. If such unification takes place, its fallout on Georgian internal politics would probably engender the end of “Georgian Dream” as a political force. The public perception is that Georgian Dream has brought Georgia closer to Russia since it started governing in 2012.

However, much of the developments also depend on how the events in Ukraine will turn out. According to Sergi Kapanadze, professor and think tank expert in international relations and former deputy Foreign Minister of Georgia, a Russian victory in Ukraine, and concretely obtaining a land connection between Crimea and the Donbas, as well as neutralization and demilitarization of Ukraine, will push Moscow to seize the momentum and pressure Georgia and Moldova on similar solutions. These may be favouring government changes and deepening Russian influence in the eastern borderlands of the post-Soviet space. Allowing Bibilov to make declarations and adopting steps for South Ossetia to join Russia could also be read in this direction, assuming that the target of such a declaration is Georgia.

Russia might indeed be interested in raising the stakes in the region and threatening Georgia from multiple directions. What could explain this choice is the partial mobilisation of Russian troops stationed in the breakaway regions of Georgia in support of Russia’s war against Ukraine. Although it remains unclear to what extent Russia is transferring troops and hardware from the two breakaway regions, there is evidence of South Ossetian and Abkhaz volunteers fighting and dying in the war in Ukraine. Allegedly, they were badly equipped to carry out their tasks. Yet the presence of militias from Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the Donbas, such as those of the Pyatnashka International Brigade led by Akhra Avidzba, is a phenomenon that predates the beginning of the war. Still, Bibilov’s declaration should be seen within Russia’s strategy to keep Georgia unstable. The minimum goal is to prevent the restoration of Georgian territorial integrity through military means, as attempted by the Georgian government in 2008; and to prevent untimely military operations in a parallel theatre to the Ukrainian one. Raising the stakes further paralyses the Government’s agenda, bolsters its anxieties, and condemns it to inaction.

Yet, it could also be a message to those who oppose the “Georgian Dream”. Indeed, its pragmatic position has been „rewarded“ by Russia by partially lifting sanctions against Georgia, while it sparked also protests against the Government. On top of this, a constitutional standoff is currently taking place in Georgia between the Government and President Salomé Zourabichvili, who is accused of overstepping her competencies in expressing her support for Ukraine. Finally, relations between Georgia and Ukraine reached one of their lowest levels in the last weeks. Ukraine accused Georgia of allowing Russia to smuggle military equipment and circumvent economic sanctions. Kyiv confirmed the withdrawal of its ambassador to Tbilisi.

Meanwhile, Belarus signals that it does not consider Georgia a hostile country. It is worth noting that in August 2021, an agreement between Georgian and Belarusian security services on information exchange in the field of state security entered into force. This agreement sparked much criticism, not least due to the concerns of the Belarusian diaspora opposing Lukashenko and for the integrity of Georgian democratic institutions in general. Yet Belarus has never recognised Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states and before the 2020 political crisis, Lukashenko maintained rather balanced relations with many of the former post-Soviet republics. Among the others, the security cooperation between Georgia and Belarus is aimed at “fighting crime against the constitutional order, sovereignty and territorial integrity.” The latter is of utmost importance for the Caucasian State.

Finally, is South Ossetia on its way out of Georgia and into Russia?

Finally, it is necessary to consider to what extent Bibilov’s victory is likely. As mentioned above, Gagloev is the leading candidate, behind whom all the opposition parties unified, and local observers already consider his victory more likely. Yet a question remains regarding the Kremlin’s real intentions. To counter Bibilov’s move, Gaglolev proposed to conduct the referendum on the unification on the same day as the second round of the presidential elections. The Central Electoral Commission of South Ossetia received the proposal on the referendum by Bibilov on April 5th. With the initiative already in the pipeline, it is only a matter of time before it will be clear if Russia would proceed to annex South Ossetia. However, the support coming from Russian politicians could also mean something else. Indeed, reactions coming mostly from the United Russia party could mean support for Bibilov as the Kremlin’s favourite candidate. On top of this, the incumbent president is struggling to win the elections even by mobilising the administrative resources available to the Presidency – read, by comitting electoral fraud

Certainly, the second round of the elections will tell us more about the direction that this unrecognised state may attempt to follow. Ultimately, the question of the unification with Russia highly depends on the developments of the war in Ukraine, and to what extent the Kremlin will want to fully annex a region that already fully relies on Russia for its existence as “independent.”