South Ossetia is in a precarious position, but as far as the locals are concerned, Russia is the only saviour.
South Ossetia is an entity that places great faith in referendums, not least because they tend to lead to pleasingly Soviet-style “99 percent” results. In 1992, there was a vote on whether the territory should integrate into Russia, and in 2006 there was a vote for independence. Both were passed by a landslide majority, and their inherent contradiction never seemed to bother anyone until President Leonid Tibilov announced in 2015 that there would be yet another referendum in the near future on joining Russia. However, there has been an ongoing feud between Tibilov and the parliament speaker Anatoly Bibilov on the timing and phrasing of the referendum question. The two men, widely regarded as the only people with any chance of winning the 2017 presidential election, have very different views on what South Ossetia’s relationship with Russia should look like.
While Bibilov has long called for full integration with Russia through a merger with North Ossetia, Tibilov would like to preserve some semblance of independence – and presumably control over financial flows – by having South Ossetia incorporated into Russia as a separate federal subject rather than as part of a “Greater Ossetia”. As such, he wanted to hold a referendum to amend the constitution so that it allows the president alone to request incorporation into the Russian Federation.
Then, in May, the Presidential Political Council voted to recommend postponing the referendum until after next year's presidential ballot, in order "to preserve political stability" in the run-up to the election. One of the reasons for deferring the vote may have been because of fears that fewer than the politically acceptable 99 percent would vote in favour of the motion. This would be more than a little embarrassing all round, as Russia subsidises almost the entire South Ossetian budget. For integrationists, it’s about waiting until the time is right.
Moscow is not keen on any referendums right now. It has little faith in the Ossetian elite to deliver the right results and, with the distraction of other things, like the Duma elections in September, Moscow does not have the time to deal with such inconveniences the moment. There are also fears that swallowing South Ossetia after Crimea and the Donbas may lead to Europe and the United States imposing further sanctions on Russia. Ultimately, the decision about when the referendum takes places lies with Moscow, which finds that the precarious status quo suits it rather well.
Integration in all but name
Of all the “grey zones” (barring those in Ukraine), South Ossetia has the closest political, economic, and cultural ties to Russia. History has bound South Ossetia and Russia together. During the Russian conquest of the Caucasus in the nineteenth century, the Christian Ossetians acted as an ally of Moscow in this largely Muslim region. This meant that they were among the very few ethnic groups of the Caucasus not to suffer deportation at the hands of the Russians, either during the conquest or later. Though nominally independent, South Ossetia is also the most dependent entity. Surveys show that the overwhelming majority of the population sees South Ossetia as more secure if it is a part of or closely allied with Russia.
But South Ossetia is not entirely dependent on Russia. In the 2011 elections, for instance, the clear Kremlin favourite was Bibilov. A few days before the elections, he shook hands with President Dmitry Medvedev in Vladikavkaz – the capital of North Ossetia – as a sign of support. Despite this meeting, which was widely covered by the media, he still managed to lose the election. There was a time when there were several native Russians in government – politicians sent by Moscow – but after the 2012 elections they were all sacked by Tibilov.
South Ossetians never wanted the Soviet Union to collapse; in fact, they voted against it. While other former Soviet republics became independent, South Ossetia found itself left in a chaotic and disintegrating Georgia. Even though some 120,000 Ossetians fled to North Ossetia and elsewhere during the war in 1989–1992, there was little serious thought given to the prospect of seceding from Georgia. The 1990s were tough for South Ossetia; Russia was beset by its own problems and provided no economic assistance.
In the early 2000s, with the arrival of Vladimir Putin, Russia became a player in the region once again. Subsidies began to arrive along with Russian (internal) passports which allowed Ossetians to go and work there. There were even some Georgians who would come to South Ossetia to apply for a Russian passport. It was easier to cross the administrative border back then. But when reformist politician Mikheil Saakashvili rose to power in Georgia, everything changed. Georgia started to take a much closer interest in South Ossetia and, in particular, in the Georgian-populated villages there. Tbilisi took steps such as closing the Ergneti market on the boundary line with South Ossetia in 2006, to put pressure on the breakaway region.
With the outbreak of the “small war”, in August 2008, Russian troops poured over the border to fight Georgian forces. This strongly reinforced the feeling among South Ossetians that Moscow alone could be counted on as the real guarantor of security. When Russia recognised Ossetia’s independence days after the war, locals were in ecstasy.
Without Russia, South Ossetia would not exist. They concluded a Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance, in September 2008, and then another treaty in March 2015, on alliance and integration, which provides for the creation of a common defence area, the free crossing of the Russian-Ossetian border, the integration of the customs authorities, cooperation on internal affairs, the simplification of procedures for the acquisition of Russian citizenship, and social benefits. The treaty will last for 25 years with an option to renew for another ten years after.
While South Ossetian passports do exist, almost everyone has a Russian passport with their place of residence registered as North Ossetia. This enables them to receive pensions and social benefits from the Russian state, even though they are living across the border.
There is also a Russia-backed programme for the socio-economic development of South Ossetia, which includes provisions for infrastructure development, including communications, housing, roads, and social facilities. The priority in 2016–2017 will be the development of agriculture, industry, and SMEs. Russian subsidies to South Ossetia in 2016 will amount to over 8 billion roubles – no small amount for a population of perhaps 50,000 people. Gazprom has also promised to supply gas to the region including to outlying villages up until 2029, according to a government agreement. Back in August 2009, Gazprom built the main Dzuarikau–Tskhinvali gas pipeline to ensure direct gas supply to South Ossetia from Russia. This means that 200 villages should now be linked to the network through the construction of more than 800 kilometres of pipeline.
There is, however, not much in the way of Russian investment in South Ossetia in spite of all the government’s effort. An investment agency was set up in 2014, but has not had much success so far. Progress has not been helped by allegations of misuse of funds by officials in former President Eduard Kokoity’s government.
It has always been hard to attract investors to South Ossetia. It was an underdeveloped agricultural backwater in Soviet times, and its ambiguous status certainly does not help to attract foreign investment. The financial crisis in Russia does not make things easier either. Consequently, South Ossetia remains heavily dependent on the Russian economy. Russian subsidies pay almost all pensions and salaries. This is not going to change any time soon.
The shifting border
Ever since February 2010, some 2,000 Russian troops have been stationed in two garrisons in Tskhinvali and up in the hills in Dzau. The decision to permanently place these troops was taken immediately after the war in August 2008. South Ossetia agreed to host Russian military facilities for 99 years. South Ossetia’s armed forces are heavily dependent on Russian funding for a rearmament programme that will make Tskhinvali’s military the equal of Russian units. This led to accusations from the defence minister that some members of parliament were trying to dissolve the armed forces, and highlighted once again the issue of the level of autonomy that South Ossetia can expect to have.
This status quo means that the Russian military patrols the “state border” in accordance with this “interstate agreement”. Anyone who tries to cross this border illegally is arrested and can be fined. In the summer of 2015, Moscow-backed security forces moved the administrative boundary fence a few hundred metres south, thereby placing more Georgian territory under Russian control. This creeping annexation means that Russia is even closer to the critical east-west transport link through Georgia and to the outside world. The administrative boundary fence is now within 500 metres of Georgia's highway that links the Black Sea to Azerbaijan. There is also a segment of the BP-operated Baku–Supsa pipeline inside Russian-occupied territory now. In some cases, villages have been cut in half by fences.
The result of any referendum on South Ossetia’s relationship with Russia is likely to be largely academic. South Ossetia has gone from being an agricultural hinterland in Soviet times to a tiny enclave perched on the edge of a shifting front-line. South Ossetia is in a precarious position, but as far as the locals are concerned, Russia is the only saviour.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.