Over the past few years, the situation in and around South Ossetia has frequently incited heated debates. A new status quo was established in the Caucasus following the five-day war between Russia and Georgia in August 2008, when Moscow formally recognized South Ossetia as an independent sovereign state. The war also transformed Moscow from a peacekeeper and moderator into South Ossetia’s patron, the guarantor of its security, and the underwriter of its economic recovery. 

The West does not recognize the new status quo and continues to back Georgia’s territorial integrity and to chastise Russia for supporting separatism. 

British political analyst Laurence Broers has said that “de facto states tend to be seen only in the context of their interactions with external actors and peace processes.” Broers’s analysis can be taken further. Unrecognized and semi-recognized post-Soviet states tend frequently to be seen only in the context of geopolitical games derived either from the Kosovo precedent or the Crimea case—international affairs issues that shape relations between Russia and the West. If South Ossetia were annexed, the West would inevitably view this as a direct continuation of the Crimea initiative, which would prompt a new round of confrontation. However, in reality, the situation in South Ossetia follows its own course and has no connection to the events in Crimea and Kosovo.

The idea of a referendum on South Ossetia joining Russia dates back much further than March 2014 and the annexation of Crimea. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, South Ossetia has held two votes on leaving Georgia and merging with “brotherly North Ossetia” to join the Russian Federation: at the height of the military conflict with Tbilisi in January 1992 and during the thaw in relations with Georgia in November 2006. Unlike the other breakaway territory Abkhazia, South Ossetia was originally motivated less by separatism (a desire to become its own nation-state) and more by irredentism (an aspiration to unite the two Ossetias under the aegis of Russia). Naturally, Russia supported these initiatives because of its own vested interests and not because of altruism. Yet, it is not only a question of Russia’s interests.

Western analysts and politicians keep remarking that the region lacks sufficient resources for statehood. Svante Cornell, a Swedish scholar, asserts that South Ossetia has no economic foundation at all. British expert Thomas de Waal points out that South Ossetia is much smaller than the other breakaway region Abkhazia and—unlike the latter—lacks a Black Sea coastline. 

According to the 2015 census in South Ossetia (the first since the dissolution of the USSR), the region currently has 51,000 residents. Georgian authorities estimate the population of South Ossetia at no more than 15,000–20,000. For comparison, North Ossetia has a population of more than 700,000.

South Ossetia is critically dependent on Russian money. South Ossetia’s own revenues account for less than 8 percent of its planned 2016 budget (8.9 billion rubles); the rest is financial assistance from Russia. Furthermore, South Ossetia does not have a powerful diaspora that could promote the image of the republic abroad (the way Armenians support Nagorno-Karabakh, for example). 

But nation-building is about more than just quantitative parameters. The absence of necessary resources for statehood does not make South Ossetia closer to Georgia, nor does it detract from South Ossetia’s own motivations, which cannot just be written off as the Kremlin’s puppet-mastery. For example, in the presidential elections of 2001 and 2011, South Ossetians voted against the candidates backed by Moscow. 

When it comes to the substance of the referendum, the South Ossetian authorities have at least two drafts. The one proposed by de facto President Leonid Tibilov does not envisage a vote on direct accession to the Russian Federation and instead offers to change Article 10 of the republic’s constitution, which gives South Ossetia the right to form unions with other states. The idea would be to mention Russia directly in the text of the Article. Tibilov emphasizes that this formula frees Moscow from unnecessary risks. 

The second draft, put forward by speaker of parliament Anatoly Bibilov, is more radical. Voters will be asked outright whether or not they want South Ossetia to become part of Russia, rather than whether or not the South Ossetian president should be given the powers to petition Moscow for the region’s incorporation into the Russian Federation.

The decision to postpone the referendum until after the presidential campaign attests to a certain compromise between the president and the speaker. This compromise is said to be aimed at peace and stability and to be supported by Moscow. The Kremlin has a lot to gain from the deferral. First, if Moscow does not have to admit openly that it is not interested in the referendum, the hawks will not have cause to criticize the Kremlin for failing to stand its ground in relations with the West and its post-Soviet allies. Secondly, the referendum has been postponed until after a number of developments occur: South Ossetia will elect a new president; Georgia will get a new parliament and form a new government; and the United States, too, will have a new administration. So, Moscow has no reason to rush.

The Russian government has no practical reasons to make South Ossetia a part of the federation. The bilateral agreement signed in March 2015 grants Moscow all necessary instruments for maintaining exclusive influence. Within South Ossetia, both the ruling party and the opposition are pro-Russian. All of this was achieved without an official union and the only objections by critics of Russia are rhetorical. Meanwhile, if South Ossetia were annexed, the West would inevitably view this as a direct continuation of the Crimea initiative, which would prompt a new round of the confrontation, with all of the risks that entails.

The likelihood of a military confrontation in this part of the Caucasus is not nearly as high as it is in Nagorno-Karabakh. Yet there is a big difference between preserving the order established eight years ago and trying to change it—particularly in view of the continued standoff between Russia and the West.

  • Sergei Markedonov