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.
Tbilisi has accused Moscow of plans to pull a Crimea in breakaway Abkhazia through a treaty that proposes a merger of military forces, coordination of police and an alignment with the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union.
On the surface, it may seem that Abkhazia's fate could not be any more tied to Moscow than it already is. The Russian military is the only outside guarantee of the region's de-facto independence from Georgia, while the Russian market provides an economic lifeline. But for all that, Abkhazia is actually serious about its claim to independence from everyone, Russia including.
In an interview with Ekho Kavkaza, the speaker of Abkhazia's de-facto parliament, Valery Bganba, complained that the document "in many places" amounts to a "loss of sovereignty."
The cornerstone of the treaty is the formation of a collective military force, with Russia appointing an ad-hoc command in times of crisis. Many Abkhaz think such force is necessary to repel any attempt from Georgia to retake the territory; an event which Abkhazia has been expecting ever since its 1992-1994 war with Tbilisi. Many believe that events in Ukraine have increased the likelihood of such an attack.
In a move that many Georgians believe bodes ill for their remaining links with breakaway Abkhazia, the region’s new de-facto leader, Raul Khajimba, has stated he wants to eliminate all crossing points but one into Georgian-controlled territory.
“The national border with Georgia on the Enguri River will be reinforced,” RIA Novosti quoted Khajimba as saying in reference to what most of the rest of the world sees as an administrative boundary line between Abkhazia and the Tbilisi-controlled region of Samegrelo.
“There should be only one checkpoint for reasons of national security,” Khajimba told an assembly of his party, the Forum of People’s Unity of Abkhazia.
For now, there are five crossing-points – four pedestrian and one vehicular – operating across the Russian-policed administrative boundary between breakaway Abkhazia and Samegrelo.
Residents of Abkhazia’s ethnic Georgian-dominated Gali region regularly use these so-called official crossings to travel into Samegrelo, the best local place for shopping, and where most have family or friends.
“Russian border guards often turn a blind eye if we show them an Abkhaz or Soviet passport or residency documents provided by the local administration and they let us herd livestock to pastures on the Georgian-controlled side,” one Gali resident told Ekho Kavkaza.
The third time proved the charm for 56-year-old Raul Khajimba on August 24, when the ex-KGB-officer-turned-separatist-official-turned-separatist-politician was duly declared the de-facto elected president of breakaway Abkhazia.
With a claimed turnout of 70 percent of roughly 142,656 de-facto registered voters, Khajimba took just over 50 percent of the vote, followed from afar by former State Security Committee boss Aslan Bzhaniya with 35.91 percent, according to preliminary data.
Defeated in 2009 and forced to take a controversial power-sharing deal in 2004, the Moscow-friendly Khajimba has been around the block a few times in his bids for elected office.
The latest bit of drama came earlier this summer when protesters, alleging widespread abuse of power and economic mismanagement, prompted Alexander Ankvab to resign as the region’s de-facto president. Yesterday's vote was to find a successor.
At an August-25 press conference in the Abkhaz capital, Sokhumi, Khajimba pledged “a reform of the system, unification of the people, and. . .to build the state” without creating divisions between “aliens” and “our own people.” (The remark is not thought to be an appeal to Abkhazia’s ethnic Georgians, whose Georgian passports lead many Abkhaz, including Khajimba, to worry about Tbilisi's influence.) He also vowed that freedom of speech would prosper in Abkhazia.
Details were non-existent, but, then, the remarks came from a candidate who had not been able to draw up a campaign platform.
As the breakaway territory of Abkhazia lurches toward a de-facto presidential vote this Sunday, one key question hangs over the outcome — will this Black-Sea region take the plunge and move for still closer ties with Russia?
Whether via annexation or other means, merger with Russia is proving the separatist theme of the year in post-Soviet parts. South Ossetia, Abkhazia’s separatist sibling, also claimed by Georgia, already has expressed a longing for such a deal.
The Abkhaz say they don’t want to go that far, but candidate Raul Khajimba, the presumed frontrunner, has pledged that, if elected, he’d be willing to get rid of the de-facto border between Abkhazia and its protector, Russia.
“Open borders will allow us to resolve many questions in calmer conditions,” he told Russia’s Gazeta.ru on August 20. There’s “[n]othing dangerous” about this for either side, he continued.
But just don’t call such plans an “association” agreement, Khadjimba emphasized to Russia's state-run RIA Novosti. After all, that’s what Abkhaz-public-enemy-number-one, Tbilisi, has going with the European Union.
Instead, “[w]e’re talking about integration processes with Russia,” he said.
Such “processes” would include “the realization of security for our tiny Abkhazia, the creation of conditions for strengthening border cooperation, questions about social-economic cooperation . . . “ Khajimba continued.
If that sounds like a merger, think again, the onetime KGB hand advised. "Abkhazia cannot become any part of Russia," he told Gazeta.ru.
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.
Armenia needs a train to make full use of its upcoming economic integration with Russia's Customs Union, but the only track still accessible to it runs via separatist Abkhazia. Now, after years of firm opposition from Tbilisi, Yerevan appears to sense an opening.
It is vital, indeed. For landlocked Armenia, the land route to Russia – a prime market for Armenia exports and migrant workers – bottlenecks through the Georgian mountains. This route is susceptible to political and natural disasters, such as the 2008 war with Russia or a recent deadly landslide, and has limited cargo transit capacity.
Georgia did not leap at Sargsyan’s overture, but indicated that there is room for discussion. Georgian officials said that Moscow and Tbilisi may discuss the Abkhazia railway at their next round of talks, and that the National Security Council will also mull over the matter. Retired Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, who is widely seen as the real ruler of Georgia, has indicated in the past that he looks favorably on the railway both as a way to bridge Abkhaz and Georgian differences and as an economic boon for everyone involved.
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.
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.