A pending appeal by the leaders of Georgia's breakaway territory of South Ossetia to Russia's Constitutional Court has the potential to trigger a destabilizing chain of events in the region.
Eduard Kokoity, the leader of the renegade territory's government, announced March 22 that he will file suit to seek Moscow's official recognition of South Ossetia as part of the Russian Federation, according to various media reports. The announcement sends a clear signal that Russia is prepared to ratchet up the tension with Georgia. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
South Ossetian leaders are heavily dependent on Moscow for political and economic support, thus political analysts widely believe Kokoity wouldn't have announced the intention to appeal unless he'd received Kremlin clearance beforehand. Until now, Russia has resisted annexation as a political option even as it quietly granted citizenship, without Tbilisi’s consent, to tens of thousands of South Ossetians and Abkhaz. That the possibility is arising at this point is indicative of Moscow's exasperation with the policies of Georgian President Mikheil Saakahsvili's administration.
Quickly adding fuel to an already volatile controversy, the leader of the Russian region of North Ossetia, Teimuraz Mamsurov, told the Interfax news agency on March 23 that the unification of the two territories was "inevitable" because of what he claimed was an unstable government in Tbilisi. "The only question is when and how will it happen," Mamsurov said.
Kokoity's call drew swift condemnation from the US ambassador to Georgia, John Tefft, the Civil Georgia website reported. Tefft rapped Russia, saying Moscow could "do more to help resolve the conflict." On March 23, the Russian Foreign Ministry was forced to clarify comments made the previous day by a government aide. The Russian newspaper Vedomosti quoted the aide, Gennady Bukayev, as saying the Russian government had decided to promote the unification of North and South Ossetia. A Foreign Ministry spokesman claimed that Bukayev had been misquoted, adding that the Joint Control Commission ö a body comprising representatives of Russia, Georgia and North and South Ossetia ö was responsible for determining the territory's status.
A South Ossetian appeal to Russia's Constitutional Court would give the Kremlin some diplomatic wiggle room. The court, which is widely viewed as subservient to the executive branch, could take its time to render a ruling, potentially giving Russian President Vladimir Putin's administration the ability to probe for concessions from US and Georgian leaders on the South Ossetian issue. Georgian leaders have intensified efforts in recent months to force the removal of Russian peacekeeping troops from South Ossetia, and replace them with an international force potentially under United Nations or NATO auspices. Russia is steadfastly opposed to such a development. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Escalating acrimony surrounding the South Ossetia issue has fueled concern about a renewal of all-out armed conflict in the region.
A Russian Constitutional Court decision that endorsed a South Ossetian move to join the Russian Federation could well precipitate armed conflict. But if that's the case, several Russian policy-makers, interviewed recently in Moscow, seemed eager for a fight. A significant number of Russian experts and politicians seem to now believe that there is no way for Russia to strike a satisfactory deal with Saakashvili's administration.
"Saakashvili is out of control, and needs to be brought to heel," said a senior Russian foreign policy expert with close ties with the Kremlin.
Under a scenario outlined by several Russian policy hawks, a Constitutional Court ruling upholding South Ossetia's right to join the Russian Federation would be followed by a referendum in the region -- the outcome of which would be a foregone conclusion, given that many of the territory's residents already hold Russian citizenship. A "yes" vote in the referendum could force an armed response by Georgian forces, as Saakashvili has made the restoration of Georgia's territorial integrity a top policy priority. If that happens, the Russian hawks say, Georgian forces should expect a massive response by South Ossetian militia, supported by "volunteers" from the North Caucasus the Caucasus and beyond.
Among the volunteers that could become involved in South Ossetia are fighters loyal to Ramzan Kadyrov, a warlord who now serves as the head of the Kremlin's puppet government in Chechnya. "We armed Ramzan, who now controls between five and seven thousand bayonets," the Russian foreign policy expert said. "He is eager to go to Georgia and fight."
So far, Georgian officials have been restrained in the response to recent developments. Several Georgian officials, in Washington for talks on Georgia's NATO membership drive, asserted that Russia wants to disrupt Tbilisi's integration into Western security and economic structures, and thus is planning a "provocation."
"Russia is focused on the NATO issue in a negative way, which makes her more aggressive," said Giorgi Manjgaladze, the Georgian deputy foreign minister who is managing his country's NATO accession effort.
Georgia at present seems determined not to be lured into a trap, and is thus shunning confrontational rhetoric. "We will protest by diplomatic means, but will not take military steps if a referendum or other provocation in South Ossetia takes place," said Nika Rurua, Deputy Chairman of the Georgian parliament's Defense and Security Committee
All members of the delegation to Washington, including Mamuka Kudava, first deputy minister of defense who is coordinating Georgia’s NATO integration efforts, insisted that Tbilisi is the target of a Russian "black PR campaign". However, the Georgian delegation added that the best strategy at present would be to ignore Russian threats and provocative actions.
However, some regional policy analysts suggest that several factors are exerting pressure on Russia to embark on a confrontational course, regardless of how Georgia reacts. Russia today is dead set on preventing Georgia's and Ukraine's accession to NATO. The Russian military, which has already been forced to withdraw from bases in Georgia, is determined not to give up more ground, either from its peacekeeping role in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, or from its stronghold in Ukraine's Black Sea coast.
Bolstering Russia's resolve are energy profits. The Kremlin can reportedly draw on a stash of $200 billion in petro-dollars ö a windfall generated by the rapid rise in energy prices in recent years. The surplus has created policy options that did not exist previously for Russian leaders. It is also worth noting that today, as always, the following political maxim is pertinent: governments and bureaucracies do things not only because they need to -- or benefit from them - but because they can.
Russia also has a powerful incentive to act quickly. Russian policy makers have made it a priority to control the flow of natural gas from Eurasia to Western Markets. Accordingly, Moscow is not eager to see a planned natural gas pipeline connecting the Azerbaijani capital Baku and the Turkish city of Erzurum, via Georgia, become operational. The pipeline would break a Russian monopoly on transport routes connecting the key Central Asian suppliers --Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan - to Europe.
Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow at the Heritage Foundation and the author of Eurasia in Balance (Ashgate, 2005) and Russia-Kazakhstan Energy Cooperation (GMB Publishing, London, 2006).