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South Ossetia Referendum On Name Change Steers Clear Of Thornier Unification Issue

  • Liz Fuller

Leonid Tibilov, the leader of Georgia's breakaway region of South Ossetia, has broken an agreement with the opposition to hold the referendum only after a presidential vote.

Leonid Tibilov, the leader of Georgia's breakaway region of South Ossetia, has broken an agreement with the opposition to hold the referendum only after a presidential vote.

Leonid Tibilov, de facto president of Georgia's breakaway region of South Ossetia, has issued a decree scheduling a referendum on amending the region's constitution to rename it the Republic of South Ossetia-the State of Alania.

But he stopped short of pushing for a proposal that he had floated several years ago, and that many of the region's population consider the logical next step: the unification in a single polity of the Ossetian nation, which is currently divided between South Ossetia and the neighboring Republic of North Ossetia-Alania, which is a Russian Federation subject. Russian pundit Modest Kolerov, who is said to be close to the Kremlin, predicted in late 2015 that over 85 percent of South Ossetia's voters would vote in favor of unification.

The toponym Alania refers to the Indo-European Alans, who settled in the North Caucasus during the first millennium A.D. and from whom the Ossetians claim descent. The ethnonym Ossetian derives from the Georgian term "osi" to designate the population of the region, which borders on Georgia. The Ossetian language is related to Persian.

As Tibilov had hinted in late December, the referendum will take place on April 9, concurrently with the presidential ballot in which Tibilov is seeking reelection for a second term. It will inevitably compound the animosity between Tibilov and his only serious challenger, parliament speaker Anatoly Bibilov, who for the past three years has repeatedly advocated South Ossetia's incorporation into the Russian Federation at the earliest possible opportunity, even though Russia has officially expressed no interest in such a scenario. (South Ossetians voted overwhelmingly in a referendum in January 1992 in favor of the region becoming part of Russia.)

Announcing the planned referendum, Tibilov explained that the proposed change is intended to give the region back its historic name. "A country should bear the name of those who created it," he said.

At the same time, Tibilov stressed that the two terms -- "Republic of South Ossetia" and "State of Alania" would be equally legitimate. He reasoned that since Russia formally recognized the region as an independent state under the name Republic of South Ossetia, to abandon that designation would only generate confusion among the international community (which has overwhelmingly refused to recognize the breakaway republic's independence.)

Ever since Bibilov's Yedinaya Osetia (One Ossetia) party won the 2014 parliamentary ballot, garnering 20 of the 34 mandates, domestic politics has been dominated by the debate over whether, when, and how the region should eventually become part of Russia. Bibilov has lobbied persistently for holding as soon as possible a referendum on the unification of South and North Ossetia within the Russian Federation, despite Moscow's repeated refusal to endorse that proposal.

Tibilov, however, has been less than consistent, repeatedly modifying his stance in light of the constraints imposed by the changing international situation (the ongoing repercussions of Russia's annexation of Crimea, the fighting in Syria) and possibly also of his perception of just how serious a threat Bibilov poses to his reelection.

Tibilov's election program in March 2012 stressed the need for strengthening the republic's sovereign status while crafting increasingly close ties to Russia. But the following year, he told journalists that "the Ossetians are one people and should live in a single state within the Russian Federation. And if this comes about under my rule, I shall consider that I have fulfilled the mission entrusted to me."

In October 2015, Tibilov duly announced plans for a referendum on the issue. Two months later, in late December 2015, he said that referendum should take place "long before" the 2017 presidential ballot, and should also decide whether or not to rename the region the "Republic of South Ossetia-Alania."

In April 2016, however, Tibilov came up with yet another option: he floated the concept of South Ossetia forming a "union state" with Russia, and simultaneously called for the holding of a referendum by August on amending the region's constitution to empower its leader to formally request the incorporation of the Republic of South Ossetia into the Russian Federation as a separate federation subject.

That trial balloon precipitated a major standoff between Tibilov and Bibilov, who objected that if a referendum took place, the sole question put to voters should be whether or not South Ossetia should become part of Russia. The two men finally reached agreement that in order "to preserve domestic political stability," the referendum should take place only after the 2017 presidential election.

By scheduling the referendum on changing the region's name for April 9, Tibilov has violated that agreement. (His stated rationale for holding the two votes concurrently was to save on the expense of a separate vote, which makes sense given that the impoverished region is almost wholly dependent financially on Russia.) The fact that Tibilov issued that decree on February 6 -- Bibilov's 47th birthday -- adds insult to injury.

The wording of the referendum question nonetheless serves two purposes. First, it demonstrates Tibilov's commitment to the hazy prospect of Ossetian unification without committing him (in the event he is reelected) to embark on an immediate course of action that could put him at odds with Moscow.

And second, if approved, it would give legitimacy to the Ossetians' claim to be the heirs to the medieval Alan kingdom in the teeth of arguments, to which Tibilov has previously alluded, by some Ingush scholars that their republic constituted the nucleus of that state.

Among the other four (to date) potential presidential candidates, the only one likely to uphold South Ossetia's nominally independent status, former President Eduard Kokoity (Tibilov's predecessor) is likely to be refused registration given that he has lived in Russia since he left office in late 2011. He thus fails to meet the requirement that candidates should have been domiciled in South Ossetia for the five years prior to the ballot.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL

About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.

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