South Ossetia: Russian, Georgian...independent?

Shaun Walker
15 November 2006

On Sunday 12 November 2006, South Ossetians went to the polls to vote in a referendum confirming the region's independence from Georgia. The result was an overwhelming "yes" to independence, with a turnout above 95% from those among the territory's 70,000 people who were eligible to vote. There was a similar vote in favour of a new term for South Ossetia's president, Eduard Kokoity. Neither outcome came as a surprise, but the chances are that nobody in the international community will take the slightest bit of notice of the results.

South Ossetia is a bite-sized chunk of land on the southern slopes of the Caucasus mountains, one of four "breakaway states" that - along with fifteen recognised nation-states - emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union (the other three are Abkhazia, Transdniestria, and Nagorno-Karabakh). The Ossetians are a largely Christian people, whose language is related to Farsi, and the majority of whom live on the northern side of the Caucasus in North Ossetia, which is part of Russia. South Ossetia was part of the Georgian republic within the Soviet Union, but in the early 1990s tried to gain autonomy from Tbilisi, which led to violent clashes in which many died and thousands were made refugees, both Georgian and Ossetian.

Since then, South Ossetia, with the exception of a few villages controlled by the Georgian government in Tbilisi, has been run as a de facto independent state, although its proclamations of independence have been ignored by the international community. The territory is heavily reliant on Russian support. As in Abkhazia, Moscow has infuriated the Georgians by granting passports to the majority of the South Ossetian population, and providing significant economic backing.

Shaun Walker is a journalist based in Moscow, where he writes for RussiaProfile.org

Also by Shaun Walker in openDemocracy:

"Anna Politkovskaya: death of a professional" (9 October 2006)

A state of limbo

The United States, the European Union, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and Nato all issued statements before the 12 November vote that branded the referendum meaningless and unhelpful. Georgia repeatedly derided it as illegitimate, though it had no problems with backing an "alternative" election and referendum that took place in the villages that Tbilisi controls. Even Russia's quiet endorsement of the result has stopped short of official recognition.

The authorities in South Ossetia's capital, Tskhinvali, managed to gather some "international monitors" to oversee the voting, largely from members of other breakaway states but including Russians, Venezuelans, and a few renegade European communists. Few foreign correspondents turned up to cover the events, and the chances are that the results will be forgotten as quickly as those of the referendum held in Transdniestria, Moldova's breakaway statelet, on 17 September.

When the dust has settled on the ballot-boxes, everyone will be back to square one. Russia is highly unlikely to recognise South Ossetian independence or initiate procedures to facilitate the accession of the region to the Russian Federation. But equally, it is likely to continue antagonising Georgia through informal support for South Ossetia. The lastest example of this came days before the referendum when Moscow followed its announcement of sharp increases in gas prices for Georgia proper by declaring that a gas pipeline would be built directly across the Caucasus mountains to South Ossetia. President Putin has hinted that he sees no reason why South Ossetians and Abkhaz shouldn't be granted independence if Kosovo and Montenegro can be.

There is certainly an element of cynical politicking behind Russia's South Ossetia policy. Georgia is public-enemy-number-one in Moscow right now, and meddling in the breakaway zones is a sure-fire way to annoy Tbilisi. But aside from the Russians installed into high positions in the South Ossetian leadership, and the giant "our president" posters featuring a grinning Putin dotted around Tskhinvali, any visitor to South Ossetia will notice significant ground-level pro-Russian sentiment, or at least an appreciation of the possibilities that being close to Russia offers them.

A Russian passport is akin to a lifeline for South Ossetians - a way to get an education or a job in North Ossetia or Moscow. There are very few jobs in the region, so most families have at least one person working in Russia and sending money home. It becomes obvious when talking to people that reintegration into the Georgian state will not be an easy process - to start with, only the eldest generation even speaks the language. People would not be able to get jobs or study in Tbilisi - Russia provides them with their only chance to make something of their lives.

Moreover, aggressive statements from Tbilisi setting deadlines for the recovery of the territory, and military construction of a base in Gori (just twenty-five kilometres from the South Ossetian capital), do nothing to reassure the South Ossetians. With a highly militarised population, and a lack of crisis-management mechanisms, there is always the chance that localised incidents or skirmishes could escalate into something that quickly gets out of control.

Also in openDemocracy on Caucasian fractures :

Alexander Rondeli, "Georgia: a rough road from the rose revolution" (4 December 2003 )

Neal Ascherson, "Tbilisi, Georgia: the rose revolution’s rocky road" (15 July 2005)

Thomas de Waal & Zeyno Baran, "Abkhazia-Georgia, Kosovo-Serbia: parallel worlds?"
(2 August 2006)

Donald Rayfield, "Georgia and Russia: with you, without you" (3 October 2006)

Robert Parsons, "Russia and Georgia: a lover's revenge"
(6 October 2006)

George Hewitt, "Abkhazia: land in limbo" (10 October 2006)

A landlocked predicament

There is some irony in the fact that the South Ossetian and Georgian outlooks share similarites. Both see a much larger and aggressive neighbour (Russia for Georgia, Georgia for South Ossetia), and thus feel forced to seek comfort in third countries in ways that might not serve their interests best in the long run (the United States for Georgia, Russia for South Ossetia). Just looking at the map makes it obvious that it would be in Georgia's best interests to find a way to coexist peacefully with Russia, and in South Ossetia's to do the same with Georgia.

The South Ossetian leadership, despite having legitimate grievances against the Georgians, is mired in suspicion and introspection, making endless statements about "provocations" and "conspiracies" from the Georgian side, but reluctant to let in people (such as foreign journalists, regional analysts and constitutional experts) to whom they could put their side of the story.

The Georgians have their public relations a little better organised. When Mikheil Saakashvili's young, western-educated government came to power in Tbilisi in the "rose revolution" of 2003-04, it quickly understood that the best way to get the west onside would be to speak to it in a language it understands; there followed copious worthy pronouncements about freedom, human rights, and the path of the courageous Georgian people to be free from the jealous paws of the post-imperial Russian bear. Amid the rhetoric, Tbilisi made it abundantly clear that one of the key markers of its success would be the restoration of Georgia's territorial integrity.

But "territorial integrity", when examined closely, is as nebulous a concept as "fighting terror": open to many convenient interpretations. The breakaway states (including South Ossetia) are ready to cite Kosovo as a precedent if that territory is recognised as an independent state. This was not possible in the case of Montenegro's independence from Serbia (sanctioned by the referendum on 21 May 2006, and agreed to by the Serbian government in Belgrade), but Kosovo's claim to independence (which Serbia strenuously objects to, citing numerous legal objections) offers the opportunity for Tskhinvali to demand the same right.

At the same time, the arbitrary borderlines of some of the constituent republics within the Soviet Union (which its successor states inherited) often do not translate easily into a basis for modern statehood. Indeed, in many cases the communist elite explicitly drew frontiers for "divide and rule" reasons. In sum, the contested and imprecise idea of territorial integrity can still be used by the Georgians (with international support) in their efforts to recover South Ossetia, while the South Ossetians can invoke the concept's flaws to argue that their right of self-determination should override it.

In the case of Abkhazia, many experts and even some western diplomats privately admit that it may never be part of Georgia again. But South Ossetia is a different story. Abkhazia has a strategic coastline providing an outlet to the world beyond Russia and Georgia, as well as vast tourism potential. Even sliver-thin Transdniestria has a Soviet-era industrial complex that provides jobs and revenues. South Ossetia has nothing. It combines a small population with no industrial infrastructure, no sea access and only one road that leads anywhere except Georgia. It also has a number of ethnic Georgian villages scattered across its territory that are under the control of the Georgian government in Tbilisi.

In short, South Ossetia is unviable as a fully independent state. This makes South Ossetia a zero-sum game between Georgia and Russia. in turn, it means that South Ossetian separation from Georgia is a much more worrying prospect for western policymakers than Abkhazian.

Between north and south

The removal on 10 November of bellicose Georgian defence minister Irakli Okruashvili (who was born in South Ossetia and has frequently implied that South Ossetia could be won back by force) may be a sign that Georgia intends to adopt a more tactful approach to the conflict. The timing is symbolic on more than one count; perhaps the Georgians had one eye on Washington, where a far more powerful defence secretary had left office two days earlier.

The recent crisis between Georgia and Russia has proved what should have been obvious to them all along - that while Tbilisi can rely on kind words and lobbying from the United States when it comes up against Russia, they can't rely on anything more. And with the US election on 7 November delivering a crushing blow to the George W Bush administration, perhaps Saakashvili has also started to wonder if the next occupant of the White House will buy his freedom-and-democracy lines as much as Bush has.

Indeed, this might signal the start of a more sensible South Ossetia policy from the Georgian side. It is clear that mutual suspicion runs high, and the reintegration into Georgia of a people who have lost linguistic and cultural ties with that country will not be an easy process. Without war, wholesale destruction and ethnic cleansing, Tbilisi won't win control of South Ossetia any time soon.

At present, no attempts are being made to engage the people of South Ossetia or suggest that Georgia has anything to offer. The Georgians should focus on rebuilding Georgia proper and ensuring continued economic growth, and to reach past the obstructive South Ossetian leadership to prove to the Ossetian people that a newly prosperous and tolerant Georgia is a better option than Russia's troubled north Caucasus. It won't happen quickly. But even though 99% of South Ossetians have just voted for independence, a Tbilisi that plays down the aggressive precondition that South Ossetia must be part of Georgia might just - in a very Caucasian paradox - become the catalyst for its eventual reintegration into that country.

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