Seperatists in South Ossetia Motion Toward Russian Annexation
Apr 15, 2022
In a televised address March 30, the self-proclaimed “President” of South Ossetia Anatoly Bibilov announced his intention to use the window of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as an opportunity for the region to become a “part of its historical homeland, Russia.” Figures within the Kremlin’s United Russia Party have endorsed a new referendum in South Ossetia. However, Russian state officials have so far not commented on this move — perhaps reflecting a hesitancy to add a further conflict Georgia while deeply enmeshed in the invasion of Ukraine.
A ceasefire established to halt the internal conflict between South Ossetia and the rest of Georgia in July 1993 in Sochi lasted until August 2008, when war once again erupted between Georgia and Russia and Georgia’s separatist regions. Since then, Russian forces have maintained a significant presence in Georgian occupied territories, and the Russian government has recognized the independence and sovereignty of South Ossetia. Aside from Russia, only Syria, Venezuela, Nauru, and Nicaragua recognize the independence of South Ossetia.
Bibilov has declared steadfast support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Moscow’s stated goals of “de-Nazifying” the country. In early April, he visited Donetsk and Luhansk, where other self-proclaimed independent republics backed by Russia have fought Ukraine since 2014. In a press briefing following his meeting with Denis Pushilin, the leader of the internationally unrecognized Donetsk People’s Republic, he praised the role of South Ossetian volunteers in the Donbas. He also took the opportunity to visit the frontlines at the Black Sea port of Mariupol, which Russian forces have subjected to a brutal siege over the past month.
However, South Ossetia’s active role in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has revealed fissures within South Ossetian politics and society. According to the Telegram account of Eduard Kokoity, former leader of South Ossetia, 300 mostly South Ossetian soldiers returned to the territory from Ukraine. According to Vladikavkaz-based Ossetian analyst Alik Puhati, the deployment of these soldiers with the Russian military to Ukraine reportedly had worried people in South Ossetia, who feared the withdrawal of these soldiers would leave the separatist region open to Georgian attack.
Calls among some elements in Georgia to re-take Abkhazia and South Ossetia while Russia is busy in Ukraine have so far been rebuffed, with Georgian authorities seeking to avoid provoking Moscow and to maintain the fragile ceasefire. At the same time, Russian annexation of South Ossetia would aggravate the already deeply tense relations between Moscow and Tbilisi with no demonstrable gain for Russia. Moscow, afterall, already effectively exercises control over the area given its troops on the ground and due to South Ossetia’s complete political and economic dependence on Russian support.
Abkhazia, the second Russian-backed separatist state on internationally-recognized Georgian territory, has previously motioned towards deepening integration with Russia, precipitating what some analysts consider a slow-motion process of annexation. In the wake of Bibilov’s announcement, the head of the security council of Abkhazia cast doubt on any prospect for Abkhazia’s annexation into Russia, but offered support to South Ossetia’s ambitions of Russian union. Abkhazia possesses a more competitive political system than South Ossetia as well as a more autonomous military apparatus. In 2020, elections in Abkhazia removed a more overtly pro-Russian political establishment from power in Sukhumi. The Abkhaz opposition, who lost power in 2020, have openly called for a union state among Abkhazia, Belarus, and Russia. Bibilov’s call for for two referenda — one for annexation into Russia and a follow-up for the unification with the Republic of North Ossetia-Alania, a federal subject of Russia directly to its north — underline the more confused reality regarding where annexation into Russia and Ossetian unionism remain.
It remains to be seen where this latest rhetorical commitment to a path to annexation might actually lead. With Russia dealing with its stalling invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin might not want now to sort out the messy details of integrating the self-proclaimed independent territory of South Ossetia into the Federation, much less contemplate a return to a renewed violent conflict with Georgia and all that would entail.