March 11 was supposed to be a big day for South Ossetia, the tiny breakaway region with a wish to become one with Russia. A South Ossetian delegation had arrived in Moscow with an engagement ring — the so-called Treaty on Alliance and Integration — but Russia was just not ready to commit. Perhaps because it has too much going on in its life right now.
The main battleground for the 2008 Georgian-Russian war, South Ossetia never made a secret of its desire to become the next Crimea. Its leadership had left for the signing-ceremony in Moscow to much fanfare at home and teeth-grinding in jilted Tbilisi, which claims the mountainous border region as its own.
But Russian President Vladimir Putin did not even receive the delegation, much less sign the agreement meant to merge the Russian and South Ossetian economies and government agencies.
Russian media was awash with speculation: Putin had a running nose or thinks the territory did a sloppy job with the agreement or is bogged down in Ukraine and does not feel like adding another region to his land-grab collection right now. “Indefinite postponement of such a document’s signing on the eve of an event is an unprecedented development,” wrote Russia’s Vzglyad newspaper.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has modestly understated the number of military bases that Russia operates outside its borders, apparently forgetting about the several bases Russia has in the Caucasus and elsewhere.
In his big annual press conference on December 18, the BBC's John Simpson asked Putin about the breakout of a "new Cold War" and Russia's aggressive moves around its Western borders. Putin said that it was in fact the West who was aggressive:
We have basically only two bases abroad, and those are in terroristically dangerous directions: in Kyrgyzstan after militants from Afghanistan entered that country, at the reqyest of the Kyrgyz authorities, then President Akayev, and in Tajikistan -- also on the border with Afghanistan. I think you also would be interested in everything being stable there, too.
American bases are all over the globe. And you want to say that we're acting aggressively? Does that make sense? What are American armed forces, including tactical nuclear weapons, doing in Europe? What are they doing there?
Keeping up with the regional fad of being annexed by Russia, the separatist territory issued terms of reference for how it would like to be absorbed.
The draft document offers to surrender to Russia such attributes of de-facto statehood as the army, police and courts. Not to mention, the "protection and patrolling of national borders."
Customs checkpoints (not generally accepted for South Ossetia internationally) would be eliminated between the region and the Russian Federation and any restrictions on citizens moving across the de-facto border would be abolished, the draft continues.
In other words, no need to send little green men. There is a catch, though -- South Ossetia, an impoverished region of some 50,000 residents, wants Russia to pretty much sustain it financially.
The region, which was recognized by Moscow in 2008 as an independent country, purportedly sees this takeover as a way of reuniting with its Ossetian kin in neighboring North Ossetia, part of the Russian Federation.
The notion has been around for awhile, but the annexation of Crimea and proclamations of independence by Russian-backed separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk in Ukraine, breathed new life into South Ossetia’s plans.
Two self-proclaimed statelets that are widely viewed as creatures of the Kremlin, Novorossiya and South Ossetia, seem to be really hitting it off.
Oleg Tsarev, the speaker of the assembly representing the Ukrainian separatist entity, the People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk in Ukraine, recently visited Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian capital. There, he expressed thanks for Ossetian support for the ongoing separatist campaign in Ukraine.
“We would not have made it, had it not been for the support of the Russian and South Ossetian people,” said Tsarev. Many South Ossetians have volunteered to fight on the side of the Ukrainian separatists and appear in video dispatches from the war zone. “They are heroes who will remain in our memory forever,” Tsarev told South Ossetia’s separatist leader, Leonid Tibilov.
De-facto President Tibilov said that his South Ossetia hopes to provide military assistance to Ukrainian rebels on a regular, not volunteer basis. To cement their separatist bonds, Tibilov awarded Tsarev an order of friendship during the latter’s visit.
South Ossetia also plans to strengthen ties with Moscow, the benefactor it shares with Novorossiya, through a new bilateral agreement. That pact would potentially pave the way for Ossetia’s annexation by Russia. Details of the pact, prepped by presidential administrations of Russia and South Ossetia, are unknown. But the agreement should take relations “to a qualitatively” new level, intimated Tibilov’s chief of staff, Boris Chochiyev. South Ossetian officials have repeatedly expressed desire for the territory to become a part of the Russian Federation.
Thousands of Georgians on November 15 took a stand against “Russia’s creeping annexation" of breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia in a Tbilisi rally that was as much patriotic as it was partisan. The demonstration, led by the opposition United National Movement, provided a venue for many to vent their anger with Moscow’s latest plans for integration with the two separatist regions, but also offered a chance for ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili force to make a push for a comeback.
“You don’t sell your homeland for parsley,” bristled one middle-aged woman who attended the protest, speaking in reference to the Georgian government’s efforts to restore trade relations with Russia. “Nobody is doing anything to help me and my children go back to my home in Abkhazia. They are just letting it slowly slip away to Russia. All the government is worried about is how much greens and wine we can sell to Russia.”
The perceived failure by the Georgian government to come up with a meaningful response to Russia’s proposed pacts with Abkhazia and South Ossetia has stoked such resentment. That, in turn, has opened a window of opportunity for the United National Movement (UNM), Georgia’s largest opposition movement, to take ownership of the territorial integrity issue, which now rates as the country’s second-largest national concern after unemployment.
Never one to miss a rally, Saakashvili, now wanted in Georgia on several criminal charges, addressed the crowd from Ukraine via large screens. Staying true to his flamboyant speaking style, he described his arch-foe Bidzina Ivanishvili, the ex-prime minister and founder of the ruling Georgian Dream coalition, as a “provincial dictator,” and described “Ivanishvili’s Georgia” as debased and degrading, to use polite terms for the actual words used.
While Russia is on a land-grabbing binge, South Ossetia hopes Moscow will not forget about its aspirations, too. The region’s separatist leadership is drawing up an agreement meant to insert the disputed territory into the Russian Federation.
The agreement is influenced by a recent integration plan that Moscow offered to South Ossetia’s separatist twin, Abkhazia, but reportedly goes far beyond it. Both regions maintain de-facto independence from Georgia and almost existentially rely on backing from Russia. Abkhazia, however, insists on some ground rules in its relationship with Moscow, such as keeping space for sovereignty.
The particulars of the changes made by the Abkhaz remain under wraps, but, reportedly, they took out the clause on bilateral simplification of naturalization of each other’s citizens. Also, reportedly, axed was the most contentious part that proposed to allow Russians to take the command of a joint military force in times of war in Abkhazia.
But if the Abkhaz found the Russian integration plan overbearing, the South Ossetians believe that such a deal would not be going far enough. “The version of the agreement, which is being prepared for signing between Russia and Abkhazia, would not reflect all the yearnings of the South Ossetian people, their aspirations for the Russian Federation,” said the region’s de-facto parliamentary speaker, Anatoly Bibilov.
Scotland’s dabbling in secessionism has been closely watched in the ex-Soviet Union, the Shangri-La of separatism. From Transnistria to Karabakh to Crimea, all eyes have been on the UK recently, in hopes that the Scottish example would change hearts and minds about claims to independence.
In South Ossetia, approaching, on September 20, the 24th anniversary of declaring itself independent from Georgia, many were inspired by the “peaceful and civilized” conduct of the Brits. Abkhazia produced a video, in which a group of people unfurl a giant Scottish flag to the sound of Mel Gibson bellowing “Freedom!” in Braveheart.
Yet with Scotland’s September-18 vote to stay with the United Kingdom these public expressions of separatist-solidarity with Scotland have suddenly fallen silent. Only Nagorno Karabakh, which itself has seen a referendum proposed as part of the solution to its differences with Baku, issued a statement, observing that “regardless of the result,” the Scottish referendum had shown that letting people decide their own fate is “the norm in a democratic society.”
South Ossetia is poised to join a "unified defense space" along with Russia and Abkhazia, further extending Russia's military presence into what is still legally Georgian territory. This budding alliance will both "follow the example of and oppose NATO," South Ossetia's ambassador to Abkhazia told the Russian newspaper Izvestia.
Last week Russian President Vladimir Putin met the newly elected de facto president of Abkhazia, Raul Khajimba, and one of the things they discussed was the creation of a unified defense space, i.e. the Russian military taking joint control of security in Abkhazia along with the Abkhazian security forces. Fellow Georgian breakaway republic South Ossetia is going to be part of that process as well, the ambassador, Oleg Botsiev, told Izvestia.
"Currently our side is working out the possibility with the Abkhazian side of concluding an agreement with Russia on joining South Ossetia to the single defense contour," Botsiev said, adding that it wasn't yet clear whether the agreement would be trilateral or if South Ossetia's agreement with Russia would be separate.
And he said South Ossetia's agreement with Russia would differ from Abkhazia's (though his explanation of how wasn't entirely clear): "Its creation is still being discussed, though it's already clear that included in it will be first of all a military component, and then the conditions for economic and information security of our region will be drawn up."
Make space on the bookshelves and coffee tables. The world’s first Abkhaz-Ossetian dictionary is almost here. The South Caucasus’ two tiny, breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, may already share the languages of Russian and separatism from Georgia, but that is not enough. In an expression of brotherhood, they have decided to translate each other’s rare, mountain languages.
Featuring some 4,000 words, the dictionary is a product of blood, sweat and tears by linguists from the two regions, South Ossetia’s breakaway authorities were excited to report earlier this week. “This is going to be the first Ossetian-Abkhaz dictionary in history,” proudly proclaimed Robert Gagloyev, the director of the Vaneyev Research Institute in South Ossetia’s main town, Tskhinvali.
The dictionary will go to print this year with 200 copies, of which half will be given to Abkhazia as a gift and the rest will be donated to schools, libraries and a university in South Ossetia.
The two languages share with each other, and with Georgian, a propensity toward guttural sounds, agglutination and disregard for vowels. Unlike Georgian, the Abkhaz and Ossetian languages both make use of the Cyrillic alphabet.
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.