They may be a small group, but they are tough mountain men, seasoned in war and guerrilla-living. They are part of the Vostok (The East) battalion and, according to testimonies by local insurgents, they are making all the difference in the rebellion against the central authorities in Kyiv. They are, of course, the South Ossetians.
Their tiny South-Caucasus region has yet to convince the world — bar Russia and a handful of other countries — to accept its independence from Georgia, but South Ossetia itself is not shy about recognizing the legitimacy of fellow separatists in need. It was the first and only place to recognize Ukraine’s twin breakaway, self-declared republics of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent states, and is expecting credentialed ambassadors to show up in South Ossetia’s main city, Tskhnivali, any day now.
But the separatist camaraderie has gone beyond just recognition. South Ossetia is now busy sending money, clothing and fighters to eastern Ukraine, Russian media report. And this last despite the widespread international belief that the amateur rebel warfare there caused the July 17 Malaysian Airlines tragedy.
In this age of separatist referendums, breakaway South Ossetia’s apparent plans to run a show of hands on joining Russia should not hit as a shock. It appears to be quite the thing these days.
The new dominant party in the region’s miniature, 34-seat de-facto parliament ran in a de-facto June-8 parliamentary vote on a ticket of surrendering to Moscow South Ossetia’s declared sovereignty. Now the party, United Ossetia, says it will live up to its name and make sure South Ossetia merges with its Russian cousin, North Ossetia. “We will be staying true to our slogans,” declared Anatoly Bibilov, South Ossetia’s de-facto parliamentary speaker, ITAR-TASS reported. “The question [of acceding to Russia] will be put to a referendum.”
After finishing tidying up committees and whatnot after the de-facto vote, legislators will get right to it, Bibilov added. No date has been announced.
South Ossetia’s Russian cravings are nothing new. At times, Moscow seemed more serious about its protégé’s de-facto independence than South Ossetia itself, which had been putting out feelers to the Kremlin for quite some time. These requests did not jive with the Kremlin’s line that Russia in 2008 had protected two freedom-loving territories – South Ossetia and separatist sibling Abkhazia – from attacks by Tbilisi.
Whether or not Moscow and Tskhinvali are now on the same page on the matter of integration is not clear. The Kremlin is keeping its lips zipped about the referendum.
Nobody much listened after separatists in Ukraine asked the world to recognize their newly declared People’s Republic of Luhansk. But the call was heard loud and clear in separatist South Ossetia.
Call it bonding between the self-proclaimed types. South Ossetia’s breakaway leadership announced on June 16 that they cannot stay indifferent to the will of the people of the so-called “People’s Republic.”
“Respecting the expression of the will of the people of the People’s Republic of Luhansk, the Republic of South Ossetia recognized the results of the [May 11] referendum [on secession from Ukraine] and is ready to make a constructive decision,” said Leonid Tibilov, the de-facto president of South Ossetia, the region’s Ossinfo agency reported.
Tibilov’s separatist counterpart in Luhansk, Valeriy Bolotov, promptly relayed the news to the Luhansk people. “Tomorrow, we will appoint an ambassador of the People’s Republic of Luhansk to the Republic of South Ossetia,” Bolotov proclaimed, reported Interfax.
But the so-called leader of the Luhansk people might want to hit the brakes here. South Ossetia’s de-facto foreign ministry told the Russian Dozhd’ (Rain) television channel that Tibilov’s statement does not mean official recognition.
South Ossetia, which relies on Russia for everything from arms to aid, is unlikely to make its decision final without consulting the big boss, Moscow.
That collective sigh of lament you hear coming out of Tskhinvali is the byproduct of South Ossetia’s 3-0 World Cup semifinal loss to an entity called Countea de Nissa.
To be clear, this is not the FIFA World Cup, which kicks off on June 12 in Brazil. South Ossetia’s match on June 6 was part of the ConiFA World Cup in Sweden, an alternative tournament for teams representing unrecognized nations.
South Ossetia still gets to play another game, on June 8, to determine the tournament’s third place finisher, facing the loser of the second semifinal match involving Arameans and the Isle of Man.
To reach the semifinals, South Ossetia beat its fraternal separatist entity Abkhazia on penalty kicks after the game ended 0-0 after 120 minutes of play.
Abkhazia lost a placement match June 5 against Padania, and will play its final match on June 7 against Occitania.
After pulverizing Darfur 12-0, Nagorno-Karabakh will face off against Lapland in a June 7 placement match.
Perhaps the most prickly question about the Eurasian Union -- the new, Russia-centric trade club -- is whether or not its members can bring to this neo-Soviet party their significant others. In other words, associated separatist dependencies.
Like with many Moscow clubs, there is face-control in the Eurasian Union. For now, Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus have it all to themselves. Disputed breakaway formations like Nagorno Karabakh, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, though, are also keen for inclusion.
But getting the separatist territories in would cause a wave of bad blood between the Eurasian Union members and the countries (Azerbaijan and Georgia, respectively) who demand these territories back. Leaving them out, in turn, may hamper the territories' ability to get economic sustenance from club-founder Russia and prospective member Armenia.
This is a pain in the neck, in particular, for Armenia, which already has been requested by the club to leave its own protégé, Nagorno Karabakh, in the cloakroom.
Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev last week quite curtly told his Armenian counterpart, Serzh Sargsyan, that none of the founding members have any desire to aggravate Azerbaijan. You only get in "within the boundaries recognised by the United Nations," he advised at an Astana roundtable.
Sargsyan, a Karabakh native, later said that Armenia never intended to slip the mountainous territory (which Yerevan essentially views as a separate country) into the club.
In a win likely to inspire some celebratory gunfire this evening, South Ossetia on June 4 narrowly defeated its separatist sibling Abkhazia in a World Cup of soccer, and now will head to the semi-finals. No, not in that World Cup. In a championship in Sweden for breakaway territories, stateless peoples, micro-nations, and the like.
For the most part, the Caucasus breakaways have been doing well in the tournament. The South Ossetian team earlier destroyed Darfur United with a jaw-dropping 19 to 0 score, while the Abkhaz beat Lapland 2 to 1, and held even against Occitania, a fuzzy territorial concept that embraces parts of Italy and France.
Breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh, however, has been less successful, losing to teams from the Isle of Man and the long-dissolved Countea de Nissa.
If Russia is looking for more land to grab, breakaway South Ossetia is interested. “Inspired” by the example of Crimea, South Ossetia’s separatist leader said on June 2 that his tiny Caucasus region can’t wait to glue itself to the Russian Federation.
“This historic moment should come,” said de-facto President Leonid Tibilov, news agencies reported. “We have good chances of becoming part of Russia.”
Following Russia's gobbling of Crimea, many wondered what next separatism-prone territory would end up in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annexation collection. So far, separatists in Ukraine’s East, Moldova’s Transnistria and Georgia’s South Ossetia have raised their hands.
“Here in South Ossetia we were excited to watch the Russian leadership deciding to reunite Crimea with Russia,” elaborated Tibilov dreamily. “We are happy for the people of Crimea, who finally have a home.”
The separatist leader said that the Crimea experience had created a wisp of hope in South Ossetian hearts that someday the same can happen to them.
The attraction for these individuals lies due north, in the Russian Federation's North Ossetia, seen locally as the region's Siamese twin. The two have been separated since 1922.
But whether or not Moscow has the incentive to try and reunite them remains unclear.
At the time, scoffers said Georgia was only attracted to Tuvalu’s vote at the United Nations General Assembly. For Georgia and Russia, every vote counts at the UN, where the two battle for the international non-recognition or recognition, respectively, of separatist Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
But Georgia severed ties with Tuvalu less than a year after learning where to find the island on a map. The split was caused by Tuvalu suddenly wanting to do its own thing and support breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia's independence in September 2011.
It was widely believed that Russia, ever the debonaire seducer, had wooed Funafuti away. Before Tuvalu, nearby Nauru also had stepped forth to recognize the independence of the breakaway couple. Vanuatu nearly went bipolar on the issue, changing its mood nearly every month.
Poster promoting a referendum in Transniester. (photo: Odnoklassniki)
With Russia's annexation of Crimea accomplished breathtakingly quickly, is Russia's land grab over? Anyone listening to President Vladimir Putin's speech on Tuesday, with its soaring appeals to restoring Russian greatness might think that Crimea is too small a prize to right all the wrongs that Russia has suffered. And while just two weeks ago further changes to the map of Europe seemed unthinkable, now they seem a very real possibility. "Russian annexation of Crimea is likely to initiate a pernicious cascade within Ukraine and further deepen the conflict," wrote analysts Samuel Charap and Keith Darden in an analysis for Reuters. "It is not a stable end-point for the crisis."
Concern has been raised anywhere that ethnic Russians live, from Estonia to Kazakhstan. Both those are unlikely to be Moscow's next targets, however, Estonia because it's a NATO member and Kazakhstan because its government has been a relatively compliant Russian partner, especially lately.
Everyone in the Caucasus has reasons to worry about which direction Crimea’s vote goes this Sunday, but for their own reasons. For the breakaway regions, the conflict may have implications for their own future.
Already, it is affecting their actions. On March 12, the de-facto authorities in Abkhazia detained a Ukrainian TV crew that had come to gauge local reactions to the Crimea crisis. After hours of interrogation, which caused alarm and worry back in their station’s newsroom, the journalists were kicked out of Abkhazia into next-door Russia, the Ukrainian site Censor.net.ua reported.
Two more reporters with the same Ukrainian station, 1+1, have been detained in North Ossetia, the Russian twin of breakaway South Ossetia, on the Georgian side of the Caucasus mountains. The journalists, who were released after five hours of questioning, said that local officials have orders to watch out for sightings of Ukrainians.
Journalists are now asking both regions' de-facto authorities questions about any plans to follow Crimea’s suit and seek merger with Russia.
In South Ossetia specifically, such ideas, linked with the idea of union with North Ossetia, have significant backing. The de-facto administration in Tskhinvali told Russia’s Dozhd’ TV that it needs to wait for a national plebiscite law that would simplify the procedure of joining Russia.