South Ossetia, a separatist region that sees itself as an independent country, has announced plans to hold a popular show of hands about joining its big neighbor and benefactor, Russia.
“Today’s political reality is such that we have to make our historic choice: we must reunite with brotherly Russia and ensure centuries of security and prosperity for our republic, our people,” the region’s de-facto leader, Leonid Tibilov, allegedly announced at an October 19 meeting with Vladislav Surkov, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s advisor for separatist matters.
What particularly attracts South Ossetia to Russia is neighboring North Ossetia, a Russian republic seen as part of an Ossetian homeland.
But Putin’s press person, Dmitry Peskov, has a different recollection of Tibilov’s words. Nothing was said about a referendum or the region becoming part of Russia, he claimed, the state-run RIA reported. Just South Ossetia's "age-old dream of reunification" with Russia; in other words, nothing new, he said.
Russia effectively pulled South Ossetia out of Georgia during the two countries’ 2008 war, and subsequently declared it an independent state, an entity that it had saved from abuse by Georgia. It has shelled out millions of rubles to sponsor South Ossetia’s statehood-building.
It apparently sees no reason to go a step further and absorb the region altogether. South Ossetia has not announced a date for its referendum, but the plain message from Moscow is "bad timing."
“For South Ossetia, the pluses of joining the Russian Federation are quite obvious. For Russia, there are not too many, while there are plenty of minuses of a diplomatic, international-relations nature,” commented Leonid Kalashnikov, deputy chairperson of the Duma’s international affairs committee, according to RIA.
“We need to understand that the reaction of the international community is going to be absolutely explosive,” cautioned Leonid Slutsky, chairperson of Duma’s committee for ties with Russia’s post-Soviet neighbors. Slutsky said that the Kremlin now has its hands full fending off international criticism over the Russian campaigns in Ukraine and Syria.
South Ossetia’s Tibilov, like Putin an old KGB hand, likely is aware of that. His motivation for announcing a referendum now can only be surmised.
Tbilisi calls South Ossetia's would-be referendum illegal since it excludes the opinions of the thousands of ethnic Georgians forced to flee South Ossetia, seen by most of the world as part of Georgia.
If the vote occurs, however, it will not be the first time in recent history that South Ossetia has held a referendum on its destiny. The first came in 1992, when voters opted to move into Russia after effectively breaking away from Georgia. Then, in 2006 it voted for sticking to independence.
But just as Moscow was introducing South Ossetia to the world as a freedom-loving nation, the region changed its cards again and declared its desire to join Russia.
Embarrassed by the switch in narrative, the Kremlin was quick to shush this unification talk.
Little sign exists that much has changed. An unidentified source “close to the negotiations” between Russia and breakaway South Ossetia about integration told the Russian daily Kommersant that a referendum on joining Russia “is not on the agenda of the day."