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.
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.
The Putin-Aliyev-Sargsyan meeting in Sochi was held against the backdrop of the fiercest fighting in years over the remote, mountainous area. That sense of heightened conflict extended to the summit. Before attending the wrestling match, the Azerbaijani and Armenian presidents had a bout of words between themselves. The two accused one another of ignoring UN Security Council resolutions on Karabakh.
That left it to Putin to step in with calls for wisdom and temperance. “[T]here is no bigger tragedy than the deaths of people,” observed the Russian leader.
Perhaps he was speaking from experience, if not from a sense of irony. The international community has widely blamed Moscow for encouraging the fighting in eastern Ukraine between Kyiv and pro-Russian separatists that already has led to the deaths of hundreds, including the downing of Malaysian Airways Flight MH17.
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.
Georgia filed a complaint against Russia in Europe’s senior human-rights court in 2007, but it took nearly seven years for the EHCR to pass a verdict . “The Russian authorities had implemented a coordinated policy of arresting, detaining and expelling Georgians nationals” violating international law that bars the “collective expulsion of aliens” and “inhuman and degrading treatment,” the ECHR said in a press release on the July 3 verdict.
The long-awaited verdict put Tbilisi in a celebratory mood. “I would like to congratulate with this victory all those Georgians, who were subjected to degrading treatment, and to tell them that the European Court has stood up for their rights,” Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani, a former ECHR employee, said in a statement.
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.
If Armenians want to feel safe, they have got to speak Russian, Moscow’s propagandist-in-chief, Russian media-personality Dmitry Kiselyov, has instructed Russia’s somewhat reluctant Caucasus ally, Armenia.
While the line may sound like an ignorant tourist's throwaway complaint, the comments, in the context of Russian-Armenian relations, chafed a sensitive nerve. Many Armenians think that their country already has compromised much of its sovereignty by becoming increasingly dependent on Russian money, energy and defense. Criticism delivered in the style of a colonial master does nothing to correct that view.
By July 1 (after a few delays), Armenia is expected to enter the Eurasian Union, essentially Moscow’s response to the European Union. It already is part of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the Moscow-led counterweight to NATO. The country has effectively surrendered much of its energy supply system to Russian energy monolith Gazprom and much of its income generation depends on what migrants send home from Russia.
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.