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19 Mar 15. Of all the so-called “frozen conflicts” on Russia’s ossettiaperiphery, that between Georgia and its breakaway region South Ossetia, which declared its “independence” in 1990, is the arguably the one that Moscow has manipulated with the greatest success . Georgia’s President Mikheil Saakashvili’s decision to send tanks into South Ossetia in August 2008 to quash skirmishing between local paramilitaries and Georgian peacekeeping troops, deployed under the aegis of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), provoked a disproportionate response by the Russian military in which local Georgians fled the region for their lives and military infrastructure elsewhere in Georgia was destroyed.

In the wake of the war, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev announced Russia’s formal recognition of both South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent sovereign states. He then proceeded to sign treaties with both formalizing the permanent deployment of some 2,000 troops at a military base in South Ossetia and 3,500 in Abkhazia.

Periodic four-way talks involving delegations from Russia, Georgia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and mediated jointly by the United States, the European Union, the UN and the OSCE, on addressing the humanitarian and security consequences of the fighting are deadlocked due to Tbilisi’s adamant refusal to sign a formal agreement with the two breakaway regions on the non-use of military force against them.

The governments of both Abkhazia and South Ossetia include men who took up arms in 2008 (or even two decades earlier) to repel a Georgian incursion, and whose fears of a new war are fuelled by the negative spin Russian politicians give to Georgia’s aspirations to NATO membership. Georgia nonetheless says it will sign such an agreement only with Russia, which rejects it as unnecessary and irrelevant.

Given the way that Russia has, since the collapse of the USSR, consistently sought to manipulate the conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia to undermine successive Georgian leaderships’ pro-Western orientation, Georgia’s perception of those breakaway regions as simply Moscow’s pawns is understandable, even if it ignores their lack of any alternative ally or patron. Less understandable is Tbilisi’s disinclination to adopt a differentiated approach to seeking common ground with each one separately while conditions were still conducive to doing so.

The tensions resulting from Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014,the subsequent bitter fighting in eastern Ukraine and the decision taken at the NATO summit in Wales in September 2014 to expand substantially military cooperation with Georgia, have narrowed the room for manoeuvre between Georgia and its breakaway regions and undermined the readiness of all parties involved to seek a compromise solution.

South Ossetia, by virtue of its size (150,000 sq. miles, 3,900 sq. km), population (estimated 51,572 in 2012) and lack of either industry or natural resources (it even has to import much of its food) has little chance of surviving as an independent polity and has been heavily dependent on Russian financial support since 2008. In addition, the question of the region’s formal relations with the Russian Federation is inextricably linked with that of the “re-unification” of the Ossetian people, who constitute approximately 65 percent of the estimated 713,000 population of the contiguous Republic of North Ossetia – Alania.

South Ossetia’s political parties are nonetheless divided between those who advocate preserving the region’s largely unrecognized “independent” status under Moscow’s protection, and adherents of the region’s eventual incorporation into the Russian Federation, whether as a separate federation subject or united with North Ossetia.

The latter faction is headed by the speaker of the South Ossetian parliament, Anatolii Bibilov, whose One Ossetia party won 20 of the 34 mandates in the May 2014 parliamentary election. In January 2014, Bibilov called for scheduling a referendum on “reunification” to be held simultaneously with that ballot.

Over the past 12 months, Russia has taken advantage of the West’s preoccupation with Ukraine to negotiate with South Ossetia a new treaty regulating their common border plus a framework treaty “On Union Relations and Integration” intended to supercede that signed in 2008.

The border treaty, which was signed on February 18, envisages the removal of border and customs controls on the Russia-South Ossetia border and the creation, at Russia’s expense, of such controls along the demarcation line between South Ossetia and the rest of Georgia. The Georgian Foreign Ministry has condemned it as a vain attempt “to conceal the de facto annexation of the Georgian territory” envisaged in the upcoming framework treaty.

The initial draft of the framework treaty triggered a heated disagreement between Bibilov, who argued that it did not take “integration” to the desired optimum level, and warned that the parliament would therefore refuse to ratify it, and moderates, including de facto President Leonid Tibilov. The fourth and final version provides for closer cooperation between the armed forces and security structures of the two polities but does not stipulate as a long-term goal the referendum on South Ossetia’s incorporation into the Russian Federation that Bibilov demanded, and that featured in the initial draft.

It is not clear whether that concession on Moscow’s part was the quid pro quo for the South Ossetian leadership’s enthusiastic support for the Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. South Ossetia has sent “volunteers” to fight on their side and humanitarian aid for refugees from the fighting. It was also the first polity to “recognize” the May 2014 referendum in which the population of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) proclaimed its independence from Ukraine. Five months later, Tibilov congratulated the victors in the November 2 elections for the parliaments and chief executives of the DNR and its sister Luhansk People’s Republic and pledged to continue building diplomatic relations with the two regions.

However adroitly the wording has been finessed or fudged, the treaty on Union Relations and Integration, which has now been signed by Russian President Vladimir Putin, will still anchor South Ossetia firmly in Russia’s orbit for the foreseeable future.

The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.



By Larisa Sotieva, Senior Advisor at International Alert

19 Mar 15. The Agreement on Alliance and Integration between Russia and South Ossetia was signed on the 18 March, South Ossetia’s most significant political event in recent years. The manner in which the Agreement emerged was so opaque that it is difficult to get the whole picture from open sources, unless you follow the discourse closely and have regular contact with people from across South Ossetian society.

Learning lessons from its experience with Abkhazia, where an analogous agreement was essentially imported and placed on the table (inspiring heated debates within Abkhaz society which resulted in a number of changes in the final draft) in the South Ossetian case, the Kremlin handed the initiative to develop the Agreement to the South Ossetians themselves.

The Agreement, and the way it was put together, served as tools for manipulation, both between Russia and Ossetia and within Ossetian society. The key issues discussed in public were integration and the preservation of independence.

Supporters of integration, or what I would term supporters of de facto incorporation of South Ossetia into the Russian Federation, use an argument that cannot be challenged in a post 2008 South Ossetian society:  it gives us security. And no-one can say anything against this dogma or mantra, even if some harbour doubts. In the public mind, the likelihood of military aggression from Georgia remains strong and only the presence of Russian military bases guarantees that armed conflict will not be resumed. Unquestionably, there was a lost opportunity in the failure to give those public actors in South Ossetia who think differently a chance to debate with those who support incorporation into Russia about the absence of such a threat.

Integration is seen as the solution to many practical problems: restoring infrastructure destroyed in the war, and resolving social problems in an idealised version of Russian reality. Integration is perceived by the people as the best mechanism to oversee financial flows from Russia, and to improve living standards to catch up with those of North Ossetia, which in its own way is a model to aspire to.

Additionally, supporters market integration as a way to resolve a very important question of Ossetian identity: reunification as one people.

It should be noted at this point that Ossetian-Russian discussions about the Agreement do not mention the reunification as one people. In fact, this idea has been skilfully ignored, and North Ossetia was in no way engaged in discussions about the Agreement. One gets the feeling that the Kremlin has been communicating directly with South Ossetian bureaucrats and political parties.

I would even say that elements within South Ossetia’s political elite were in competition to propose the best draft Agreement, in order to earn particular favour from the Kremlin. To put it even more cynically: it was homework for South Ossetia’s political elite, set by the Kremlin. And the marking of the homework will reveal the party and the leader that the Kremlin will place its bets on in the near future.

All this fuss, bother and haste over the Agreement, which comes after over 80 agreements have already been signed, has stirred up society and introduced uncomfortably mistrustful notes into public discourse. The people were amazed that the local political elite developed an interest in far-reaching national and strategic plans (in addition to their financial interest), and they suspect dirty tricks.

In a closed society, where everyone knows everyone else, rumours play a major role in the public discourse. For example, there has been talk that after the Agreement is signed, South Ossetia will no longer have its own armed forces. In my opinion, the fact that this rumour provoked significant anxiety in society shows a latent lack of trust in the presence of Russian military bases as a guarantor of security. Despite lacking open access to information, and without fully understanding what was going on, people began to openly ask questions such as for what did they fight, for what did people have to die, and for what did they endure the last 20 years if in the end they merely hand over their independence to Russia? Albeit rarely, some have even been heard to question what difference it would make – to lose ones’ identity as a nation to Georgia or to the vastness of Russia?

Picking up on the not entirely comfortable public mood, Russia’s response was both cautious and strategic. Valentina Matvienko, Head of the Federation Council stated:

“We have received alarming reports that a large number of countries, that are not only interested in economic and humanitarian cooperation, have begun to show interest in South Ossetia, nurturing NGOs that are trying to assist with building relations with Georgia, by which I mean step-by-step reintegration of South Ossetia into Georgia. This needs to be scrutinised very carefully, as by no means all NGOs are interested in South Ossetia’s development.”

This is an attempt to shift attention from the essence of the Agreement to internal enemies, backed by American and western finance and strategy, which are supposedly trying to return South Ossetia to Georgia.

The hidden message in this statement, bearing in mind the Sanakoev episode (when former Georgian President Saakashvili’s team cultivated and supported a parallel authority in several villages in South Ossetia, thereby practically cutting off the  path to the north, to Russia), reads in South Ossetia as follows: if these NGO people – who cooperated, and are still cooperating closely with Russian and local authorities and intelligence agencies, people who are in full view of everyone, in the sights of supervisors and controllers – if they have turned out to be bearers of a hostile agenda, then how many people might there be who are not even under suspicion, and who may form a fifth column leading South Ossetia back into Georgia. For example, what about those people who are engaged in smuggling contraband between Tbilisi and Tskhinval/i through Leningor/Akhalgori. As a rule these people are close to those in power: members of families of high-ranking South Ossetian officials. And from the perspective of the man on the street, it might seem that they could also be in collusion with these hostile NGOs, but just have not been found out yet.

And those overcome by fears of war, and even by the mere mention of Georgia – fears they imbibe from Russian television, which has been repeating for a long time that there is nothing worse in the world than NGOs – they have only one hope of salvation: quick unification with Russia, before the enemy within, in the clutches of the West, has managed to unify South Ossetia with Georgia.

In the minds of South Ossetian society, the choices have narrowed. Now there can only be incorporation into Georgia – or into Russia. Over all these years local NGOs, and their international partners, for various reasons, have not accumulated social capital among the South Ossetian public that could enable them to influence and take serious steps to combat the propaganda, even for their own protection. Thus they have turned out primarily to be tools for the manipulation of public opinion through Russian propaganda.

The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.


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