Thursday, July 25, 2013

Window on Eurasia: South Osetia Wants to Join Russia but Moscow Unlikely to Agree

Paul Goble

            Staunton, July 25 – The president of South Osetia, which broke away from Georgia with Russian help in 2008, says that he wants to unite his republic with the Republic of North Osetia-Alania inside the Russian Federation. But while his statement reflects the views of many Osetins, Moscow is unlikely to agree given the problems such a move would trigger.

            South Osetian President Leonid Tibilov said yesterday that “for every Osetin, the issue of unification of the people is a priority” and that he “would consider his presidential mission fulfilled if South Osetia by the desire of its citizens were to unite with Russia and the reunification of the Osetins would occur” (

This declaration must be considered in the context of three other developments this week. First, South Osetia has declared that it will begin to unilaterally demarcate its border with Georgia with the help of Russian advisors, a step that would appear to presage even tighter relations between Moscow and Tskhinval (

Second, there were signals from Moscow and Tbilisi that the Russian Federation and Georgia may now be inching their way back toward diplomatic relations, ties that were broken when the Russian government invaded Georgia in August 2008 but that both sides now appear prepared to discuss the modalities of moving toward some kind of new normalcy.

And third, as Israeli analyst Avraam Shmulyevich points out, Moscow is increasingly critical of the independent-minded Abkhazian government, as suggested by recent articles in “Komsomolskaya Pravda” and “Moskovsky komsomolets” and wants to send a signal that from now on it will treat the two breakaway republics differently rather than in lock step as in the past (

Shmulyevich’s comments appear in the first commentary on Tibilov’s declaration, a commentary prepared by Ekho Kavkaza’s Murat Gukemukhov. The latter begins by calling attention to the South Osetin president’s acknowledgement that for the unification of his republic and North Osetia within Russia, many “political and legal obstacles” will have to be overcome.

Aleksey Mukhin, head of the Moscow Center for Political Information, told Gukemukhov that Tibilov’s speech certainly was pre-cleared by Moscow but that at the same time it represented an effort by the South Osetin leader to make sure that the interests of his heavily subsidized republic were not sacrificed by some deal between Moscow and Tbilisi.

Shmulyevich, besides stressing that this speech shows that the Kremlin will now treat South Osetia and Abkhazia in a “differentiated” way, also said the prospect of any concessions by Moscow to Georgia “cannot fail to agitate Osetins both in the south and in the north” and that Moscow is sending Tskhinvali a message that “’the unification of the Osetins is not far off.’”

            That may be Moscow’s message to Tskhinvali and Vladikavkaz, but there are at least three reasons why the Russian government is unlikely to act on it even if today the Kremlin finds it useful to remind Georgia that it could take such a step and thus put even more pressure on Tbilisi to reach an accord with Moscow.

            First, any move to incorporate South Osetia into the Russian Federation would set off alarm bells both in other former Soviet republics who likely would feel threatened given some recent Russian statements about the inadequacy of Soviet-era borders and in Western capitals who likely would see such a step as a clear sign of the rebirth of Russian imperialism.

            While Western countries were outraged by Russian behavior in Georgia in August 2008, most quickly found ways to look beyond what Moscow had done in order to maintain or even expand relations. Had Moscow absorbed either Abkhazia or South Osetia, they would have found it far more difficult to “reset” their policies.

            Second, uniting the two Osetias would from Moscow’s point of view set a dangerous, even explosive precedent.  Osetins are hardly the only nation in the region divided by a border. Among the others in the North Caucasus alone are the Circassians, the Chechens, and the Ingush, to list only the three largest and most cases.

            If Moscow agreed to unite the two Osetias, leaders of all these communities would step up their demands for national reunification, something that would destabilize the North Caucasus at a time when the Russian authorities are seeking to calm things down in advance of the Sochi Olympics in February 2014.

            And third, the Kremlin has other reasons not to make such a move closer to home.  An increasing number of Russians judging from polls and demonstrations would much prefer to let the North Caucasus go its own way than to take in yet another group within the borders of the Russian Federation and make it an even larger “problem” for Russians.

            Were Vladimir Putin and the Russian leadership to agree to the absorption of South Osetia, such a step would trigger even more anti-Kremlin attitudes and actions at a time when the regime is facing a rising tide of criticism.  Indeed, such a move would probably allow Aleksey Navalny to garner even more support in opposition to Putin.

            Five years ago, in the wake of the Russian invasion of Georgia, many observers expected Moscow to absorb South Osetia if not Abkhazia. Moscow did not do so then, and the reasons for not doing so now are even more compelling. Consequently, Tibilov’s statement almost certainly represents a diplomatic faint rather than an indication of where things are heading.

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