BACKGROUND: On February 23, the Russian government approved the agreement on Alliance and Integration between the Russian Federation and South Ossetia. The document will come into force after Russia’s president Vladimir Putin and South Ossetia’s president Leonid Tibilov sign it, and it is ratified by the respective parliaments. The agreement follows a similar agreement signed by the governments of Abkhazia and Russia in November 2014. The two agreements have also followed similar political trajectories. The initial draft proposed by Moscow was leaked to the public and rejected by influential political actors in South Ossetia. The eventual agreements made some concessions to the Abkhaz and the South Ossetian leaderships, but paved way for a gradual erosion of their authority.
On March 13, South Ossetia’s parliament announced a vote of non-confidence in the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the self-proclaimed republic, David Sanakoev, accusing Sanakoev of emasculating the agreement with Russia. The new version does not go far enough to integrate South Ossetia with Russia, the parliament argues. But even within parliament, only the ruling party condemned the government and the fringe parties either opposed the non-confidence vote or refrained from voting. Putin and Tibilov were expected to sign the agreement on March 11, but due to the “disappearance” of the Russian president, it was postponed until March 18. At this time, the signing of the agreement depends only on Putin’s ability to resume his normal functioning as head of state.
Moscow recognized Georgia’s breakaway territories, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as independent states in August 2008, soon after the short war with Georgia. Yet relations between the Georgian breakaway territories and Moscow have been surprisingly controversial, given their total dependence on Russia for security and economic survival. In November 2011, South Ossetians voted in favor of Alla Jioeva in the presidential elections against Moscow’s candidate, Anatoly Bibilov, despite his earlier handshake with Russia’s then president Dmitry Medvedev and other promotional acts by Moscow. After Moscow’s interference, the election results were annulled. Leonid Tibilov, an ex-KGB officer, was elected president of South Ossetia in 2012. However, even Tibilov has had repeated conflicts with Moscow, resulting in temporary halts of Russia’s financial assistance.
Abkhazia’s president Alexander Ankvab also had an uneasy relationship with Moscow. For example, the Abkhaz government has repeatedly stalled Russia’s efforts to make inroads into Abkhazia’s lucrative real estate business. In May 2014, crowds of protesters unseated president Ankvab and Moscow’s favorite leader of Abkhazia Raul Khajimba assumed power. As with Bibilov in South Ossetia, Moscow supported Khajimba in Abkhazia’s 2004 presidential elections and lost. Almost simultaneously with the change of government in Abkhazia, South Ossetia’s largest political party, lavishly subsidized by Russia and led by the failed presidential candidate Anatoly Bibilov, won 20 out of 34 seats in parliament in June 2014.
IMPLICATIONS: After the political groundwork was laid, the Russian government proposed to sign an agreement with Abkhazia that would effectively make the republic part of Russia, though Moscow formally still recognized its “sovereignty.” Abkhazia managed to receive a better deal after some haggling, but Russia’s aim still appears to be the same – to annex this territory in practice, while continually recognizing it as “independent.” On February 16, Putin’s influential aide Vladislav Surkov again reiterated that borders between Abkhazia and Russia should be abolished. Surkov said that the agreement signed in November 2014 envisaged the removal of border controls. The Abkhaz government, however, has some reservations about eliminating border controls due to the small Abkhaz nation’s demographic vulnerability and fears of being taken over by its large neighbor to the north.
South Ossetia is evidently much more inclined than Abkhazia to join Russia, partly because kin Ossetians reside in North Ossetia on the northern slopes of the Greater Caucasus Mountain Ridge. Another motive is the fact that South Ossetia is a small and poor territory with highly limited avenues for economic development. The speaker of South Ossetia’s parliament, Bibilov, is especially vocal in promoting annexation to Russia. However, also in South Ossetia, opposition exists toward arrangements that will imply further loss of the de facto republic’s already limited rights to self-governance. The current agreement between South Ossetia and Russia leaves few prospects for South Ossetian political independence.
The agreement’s Article 2, Chapter 2 proposes that “certain units of the armed forces and security forces of Republic of South Ossetia will become part of the armed forces and security forces of the Russian Federation.” In the context of South Ossetian realities, this means that far better financed and equipped Russian military forces will drain South Ossetia’s own military, effectively depriving the republic of its own armed forces.
Article 4 of the agreement envisions a “coordination center” that appears aimed at taking over important functions of South Ossetia’s police. Article 5 proclaims the merger of South Ossetia’s and Russia’s customs services, in effect announcing the end of the South Ossetian government’s border control responsibilities. The border between South Ossetia and Russia will be declared open, while controls on the border between South Ossetia and Georgia are expected to become much more rigid. South Ossetia is obliged to sync its domestic legislation with Russian law.
The Georgian government, along with its western allies, has protested Russia’s latest moves, but the West’s focus on the crisis in Ukraine limits its attention to the Caucasus. Georgia’s economic woes and ongoing attempts to improve relations with Russia have also dampened Tbilisi’s reaction. Part of the reason for Georgia’s halfhearted reaction is the recent developments do not seem to change much from Georgia’s perspective, since both breakaway territories are anyway deemed to be under Russia’s control. However, tighter Russian control over Abkhazia and South Ossetia will make them more docile to Russia’s plans in the region, most importantly with regard to Georgia and its pro-Western orientation.
In one demonstration how the regions can be utilized for increasing pressure on Georgia, a group of Ossetian nationalists declared that Ossetian-populated areas in Georgia’s Kazbegi municipality, like the Truso mountain gorge and areas around the village of Kobi, should be ceded to South Ossetia or North Ossetia. Georgian authorities responded by banning some of the Ossetian activists from visiting their homes in the area. Moscow does not seem keen to exploit these grievances at this point in time, but could activate them at a convenient moment.
CONCLUSIONS: The Russian government moves quickly to further restrict the limited political autonomy of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, targeting the armed forces, border controls, police and legislative frameworks of the tiny territories. If Russia’s absorption of its micro-allies is perceived as hostile, this will further damage its standing among other post-Soviet countries. Russia’s neighbors are likely to learn not only from the war in Ukraine, but also from the way Russia that treats Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This sets an example for how other states that align too close with Russia will likely be treated.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Valeriy Dzutsev is a Senior Non-Resident Fellow at Jamestown Foundation and Doctoral Student in Political Science at Arizona State University.
Image Attribution: Wikimedia Commons