Three years after their war, Russia and Georgia are still fighting over the separatist territory of South Ossetia. Russia’s political supremo, Vladimir Putin, ignited the latest skirmish with a suggestion that South Ossetia may opt to join the Russian Federation.
At an August 5 meeting with the pro-government Nashi (Ours) youth group, Prime Minister Putin asserted that the unification of South Ossetia, which Moscow recognizes as an independent country, with the Russian Federation’s North Ossetia “depends on the South Ossetian people,” the Russian news agency Regnum reported. The turn-of-phrase, reminiscent of Soviet-era Kremlinspeak, was widely interpreted in Georgia and other ex-Soviet republics as meaning the Russian government was had the final say on the matter.
In an August 5 television interview, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev noted that “neither the legal nor the factual prerequisites” currently exist for Russia to, in effect, annex South Ossetia. But, he emphasized, the situation could change in the future.
While some have dismissed talk of annexation as mere posturing, one senior Georgian official believes that Moscow can incorporate South Ossetia into Russia without any particular difficulty.
“We do not know if they will do it, but they definitely can do it anytime,” Georgian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergi Kapanadze said. “It can be motivated by many things, such as internal politics, international politics, or sending a message to someone.”
“South Ossetia now is essentially a service community for the Russian military base,” added Kapanadze, referring to the 3,000-man-plus facility in the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali. “The [South Ossetian] economy fully depends on Russia, and Russian-installed people govern it.”
On August 8, Medvedev submitted agreements for parliamentary ratification concerning Russian bases in both South Ossetia and the fellow breakaway region of Abkhazia. Soon after the 2008 war, South Ossetia’s separatist leader, Eduard Kokoity, declared that the region would seek to unify with North Ossetia, its ethnic and cultural twin. But later Kokoity softened his reunification rhetoric.
To discourage Moscow from entertaining ideas about annexation, Kapanadze indicated that Tbilisi would try to get the United States and European Union “to send a very clear and consistent message” that such a move would entail a high political cost. “I am not sure it will work, as Russia has crossed many red lines before, but we should use all available diplomatic resources to make sure the international community discourages the Kremlin from taking this step,” he said.
The decision to move forward with annexation wouldn’t be an easy one for Moscow, said Paata Zaakareishvili, a Tbilisi-based political analyst who specializes in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. “It is embarrassing for Moscow to annex the regions whose independence it claims to defend,” Zaakareishvili said.
At the same time, Tbilisi efforts to enlist Western support could antagonize Moscow, he said, pointing to a US Senate resolution adopted July 29 that portrayed the Russian military presence in South Ossetia and Abkhazia as an “occupation.”
“All the US Senate resolution did was to make the Georgian government happy,” Zaakareishvili said. President Medvedev described the resolution as “the fixation” of some “aged” US senators.
Some observers believe that, with US officials now preoccupied with Afghanistan, Iraq and the Middle East, Washington has little incentive to wade back into a tricky territorial tussle associated with the former Bush administration.
“There is definitely Georgia fatigue [in Washington],” said one foreign consultant to the Georgian government, speaking in a private capacity and on condition of anonymity. “There are the reliable, reflexive Georgia supporters … and those who are equally reliable as dismissive of Georgia … some of whom are actively pro-Russia, but most of whom are simply realpolitikers or isolationists who see Georgia as of no consequence to the US.”
Officials in Tbilisi repeatedly have charged Russia with trying to destabilize Georgia, while the Kremlin rarely passes up an opportunity to take a swipe at President Mikheil Saakashvili’s administration. Recently, The Washington Times and The New York Times published confirmations from anonymous US officials that some grounds exist to support Tbilisi’s allegations.
In an August 8 briefing, the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank, argued that Tbilisi and Moscow should “de-escalate the rhetoric about the bombings and support for terrorism and agree to joint investigations or ones carried out by third parties” in a bid to reduce tensions.
With no agreement on “larger issues, such as the return of displaced persons,” ongoing talks in Geneva between Tbilisi, Russia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia could “easily collapse in the present toxic atmosphere,” the briefing stated. It called for the international community to continue to press Moscow to withdraw its military to pre-war positions, facilitate the return of Internally Displaced Persons and to agree to European observers’ full access to the conflict territories.
Zaakareishvili said Tbilisi could also lower the temperature by releasing all South Ossetian prisoners, restoring natural gas supplies and legitimizing South Ossetian passports and license plates. The Georgian government, however, appears focused on international intervention as means for conflict resolution. Tbilisi’s own attempts at dialogue have all been refused, Kapanadze observed.
“If past experiences are anything to go by, then only consistent pressure from the West can lead to compromise from Moscow,” he said.
Giorgi Lomsadze is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi. He is a frequent contributor to Eurasianet's Tamada Tales blog.