South Ossetia, Under Russian Protection, Debates Dissolving Its Army
South Ossetia's authorities are fighting among themselves about the future of the country's armed forces, with the territory's de facto defense minister accusing political opponents of wanting to dissolve the military and fully hand over the responsibility for its defense to Russia.
At issue is the implementation of the agreement signed last March by Russian President Vladimir Putin and his de facto South Ossetian counterpart Leonid Tibilov on "alliance and integration" between Russia and South Ossetia, including a "common space of security and defense."
Russia officially recognized South Ossetia as an independent country in 2008, after it fought a war with Georgia over the tiny territory, still recognized by most of the rest of the world as a part of Georgia. Since then, Russia has been formalizing its control over the territory, though only up to a point: a South Ossetian proposal last fall to hold a referendum on joining Russia was quietly ignored by Moscow, which apparently decided it didn't have anything to gain by this particular annexation.
In any case, the March 2015 agreement between Moscow and Tskhinvali called for "particular units of the armed forces of South Ossetia to enter the structure" of the Russian military. But the devil is in the details, and the two sides are now working out legislation on how to implementat the agreement. South Ossetia's defense minister, Ibragim Gasseyev, accused the South Ossetian parliament of conniving to eliminate the local armed forces altogether.
"If this draft were to go through all capable units of the South Ossetian armed forces would be eliminated. At the same time, there are absolutely no guarantees that servicemen who will be made redundant will be employed in the Russian armed forces. This is unacceptable for us," he said in an interview this week with the state news agency Res.
The argument doesn't seem to be about sovereignty as much as jobs for the roughly 800 members of South Ossetia's armed forces, however. (800 may seem like a small number, but given that the entire population is 50,000 according to official numbers, and likely significantly lower, that's a substantial portion of the territory's able-bodied men.)
"In practice [if the parliement's legislation were passed] we would be deprived of an army, and people left without work. How would they feed their families?" Gasseyev asked in the interview.
Leaders of the parliament have denied Gasseyev's accusations. "Parliament has never come out in support of the elimination of the ministry of defense," said the parliament's chairman, Anatoliy Bibilov, in an interview last week with Sputnik South Ossetia. "We support the rigorous implementation of the agreement on alliance and integration, which calls for the entrance of some units of the armed forces of South Ossetia into the structure of the Russian defense ministry. The agreement doesn't contain anything about elimination or dissolution of the South Ossetian army."
It's not clear what would motivate parliamentarians to eliminate their armed forces, but Gasseyev referred to "political ambitions" of some of them: "It's possible that some people believe that South Ossetia doesn't need an army. Then let them say it publicly and argue their position. I think the future of the armed forces of South Ossetia is more important than any political ambitions."
The legislation under consideration doesn't seem to be public, so that the public could decide for itself. But the internal squabble is an interesting insight into how South Ossetians see their future relations with Russia. It's an instructive contrast to Abkhazia, another Georgian breakaway republic where a similar proposal was debated in 2014. In Abkhazia, however, the controversy was much more about the would-be country's sovereignty, and the political elite seemed somewhat more unified on that matter than their counterparts in South Ossetia do now.
Joshua Kucera, a senior correspondent, is Eurasianet's former Turkey/Caucasus editor and has written for the site since 2007.