The initiative by the breakaway republic of South Ossetia to hold a future referendum on joining Russia will almost certainly have an impact on Moscow’s relations with Georgia and the West.

Army servicemen during the 25th anniversary of South Ossetia's independence. Photo: RIA Novosti

The escalation of military confrontation in the Nagorno-Karabakh region once again attracted attention to the region of Transcaucasia. However, Nagorno-Karabakh is hardly the only hotspot in the troubled Transcaucasia region. Western experts now fear that the breakaway republic of South Ossetia, which was once part of Georgia, could become the next focal point for regional tensions.

While South Ossetia is hardly on anyone’s radar right now, future events in this republic are significant for Russia, because they might have an impact on Moscow’s relations with Georgia. And, given Georgia’s recent overtures to the West, anything that affects Georgia has a chance of resonating in Washington and Brussels as well.

On Apr. 4 – just two days after the flare-up of tensions in Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia’s President Leonid Tibilov announced plans to conduct a referendum about the status of the republic. According to Tibilov, the people of South Ossetia will have a chance to express their free political will and support the idea of joining Russia. The results of the referendum would give Tibilov a reason to send an official request to the Kremlin to be incorporated into Russia.

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What makes this idea so intriguing is the possibility that the idea of the referendum was among the topics that Tibilov discussed with Russian President Vladimir Putin during his recent visit to Moscow. Tibilov highlighted that the participants of the discussion came to the conclusion that they needed to legally assess such a possibility. There is still no information about the exact date of the referendum, but it is expected to take place very soon — “not in a year, two years or six months, but earlier,” according to Tibilov.     

Does it mean that the Kremlin will implement the Crimea scenario in Transcaucasia and incorporate South Ossetia? Despite a high level of instability in the region, nothing extraordinary has happened yet. However, recent history suggests that South Ossetia has been yearning to join Russia ever since the breakup of the Soviet Union.

The basis for a united Ossetia

In August 2008, Russia recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which created the precedent of self-determination for the two former Soviet autonomous entities. Yet neither of them was incorporated into Russia at the time.

Flash forward to 2014, when the incorporation of Crimea once again invigorated talk of South Ossetia joining Russia. From this perspective, there is actually one very good reason why South Ossetia could attempt to repeat the Crimea scenario: South Ossetia has strong ties to Russia, in terms of its relationship with the North Ossetia Republic, one of the most urbanized Caucasian regions of Russia (almost 70 percent of its citizens live in cities).

So, to a certain extent, North Ossetia looks like a big brother of its unrecognized, but formally independent, southern neighbor. For now, North Ossetia outpaces South Ossetia economically, politically and from the point of view of population.  

According to the data of South Ossetia’s first population census, which took place between October 15 and October 30, 2015, more than 51,000 people are currently living in the republic. By comparison, North Ossetia is home to 700,000 people. The size of South Ossetia’s territory is about 3,900 square kilometers, compared to 8,000 square kilometers for North Ossetia. It is obvious, then, that in the case of such political merger, the Northern republic will incorporate its southern neighbor, not the other way around.     

At any rate, the idea of a united Ossetia is not the invention of President Tibilov. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, South Ossetia proposed this initiative for the first time in an attempt to deal with what it saw as Georgian nationalism and oppression. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, debates about the future of South Ossetia’s status accompanied the ethno-political conflict and clashes with Georgians.

As a result, the authorities of South Ossetia orchestrated a referendum to secede from Georgia and join Russia’s North Ossetia on Jan. 19, 1992. With Georgians living in South Ossetia refusing to participate in the referendum, 90 percent of voters supported the idea of the republic’s accession to Russia.     

In November 2006, the republican authorities raised the problem of the status of South Ossetia for the second time (the referendum coincided with the presidential elections). At first glance, a new voting for independence looked like a sort of nonsense, because the same referendum had already taken place 14 years ago. However, during a period of increasing military and political confrontation with Georgia, South Ossetia’s leadership wanted to persuade the whole world that it was interested not only in electing a new president, but also in maintaining the policy it chose after the collapse of the Soviet Union: the gradual accession to Russia. 

In 2008, Russia recognized the independence of South Ossetia, but despite this symbolic gesture, the small republic faced a large number of problems, including political and socio-economic challenges, on the path to autonomy. To a large extent, the major factor is related to South Ossetia’s economy. There is the risk of South Ossetia turning into an administrative entity, exploited for purposes of budget allocations. Driven by these calculations and the reluctance of the locals to admit the jurisdiction of Georgia, South Ossetia’s politicians and population are seeking to implement the scenario of joining Russia.

In fact, they see a united Ossetia, included as part of Russia, as a national project, which gives them hope for a better future. This is, by the way, the major difference between South Ossetia’s project and the plans of Abkhazia, which is seeking to create its own statehood. No wonder, then, that Crimea’s incorporation into Russia reinvigorated the idea of a new referendum in South Ossetia.

How Moscow views the idea of a united Ossetia

South Ossetia’s politicians are extensively exploiting this idea now for their own political purposes. For example, the leader of the United Ossetia party, Anatoly Bibilov, won the 2014 parliamentary elections. Likewise, President Tibilov is using this idea as a form of political currency.

With these two politicians likely to compete during the 2017 upcoming presidential elections, the current South Ossetia leader is making an attempt to seize the political initiative by promoting the idea of a united Ossetia under Russia.  From October 2015 and February 2016, he reiterated the necessity to conduct the referendum, providing new details on a regular basis.

For example, recently Tibilov proposed to amend the constitution of the republic to achieve more power and autonomy before coming up with a roadmap of joining Russia. According to him, this will alleviate the risks of Moscow being lambasted by the West for annexing a new territory, given the perception in the West that Russia has a key role in providing South Ossetia with economic and political security. Yet it doesn’t mean that people in South Ossetia depend on the Kremlin’s geopolitical plans and don’t have their own motivation and vision of future.

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Thus, President Tibilov’s attempts to reinvigorate the agenda of a new referendum don’t mean Russia will incorporate South Ossetia in the near future. He is just using such rhetoric before the presidential elections in the republic. One should not also forget about the upcoming parliamentary elections in Russia, which will take place in September 2016.

As a result, the Russian authorities might also boost the patriotic agenda, with political populists posing the question of Russia acquiring new territories. This is where the calculation to merge South Ossetia’s local agenda into Russia’s national one becomes interesting, at least from a political perspective.    

However, there is a certain distance between these ideas and their practical implementation. Usually, complicated political reality hampers idealistic perceptions and requires more pragmatism in assessing the chances of the plans coming true. In fact, Russia has no interest in incorporating South Ossetia, because it can already exert pressure on Georgia through this breakaway republic. Yet the violation of the status quo, which was established after 2008, will lead to the exacerbation of confrontation between Russia and the West, something the Kremlin has been careful to avoid of late.

Nevertheless, Moscow is hardly likely to dismiss South Ossetia’s arguments in favor of the referendum. In reality, the Kremlin might see it as an important asset, because Russia is still relevant and popular in the republic itself. However, Moscow will take concrete actions only in an extraordinary case.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.