Meeting on October 19 with visiting Russian presidential official Vladislav Surkov, de facto South Ossetian President Leonid Tibilov announced he plans to initiate a referendum on the region's incorporation into the Russian Federation. He did not specify a timeframe for doing so, or whether South Ossetia would become a separate subject of the Russian Federation or be subsumed into the Republic of North Ossetia-Alania on which it borders.
The self-proclaimed Republic of South Ossetia split in the early 1990s from Georgia, of which most members of the international community still regard it as an integral part.
Russia formally recognized South Ossetia as an independent state in late August 2008 following the intervention of Russian forces after then-Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's attempted to restore the central government's control over the breakaway region.
Since his election as de facto president in April 2012, Tibilov has consistently maintained the need to preserve South Ossetia's nominally independent status. By contrast, his defeated rival in that ballot, Anatoly Bibilov, called in January 2014 for a referendum on South Ossetia's incorporation into Russia.
In March 2015, Tibilov and Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a bilateral framework Treaty on Union Relations and Integration that provided for enhanced security cooperation between the two polities and increased Russian financial assistance for the small and impoverished region, which is heavily dependent on Russian subsidies.
The initial draft of the treaty included as a long-term goal the holding of a referendum on the region's incorporation into Russia, in line with the demand by Bibilov, who became parliament chairman following the victory of his One Ossetia party in the June 2014 parliamentary election.
Following a stormy political debate over several months, however, the clause providing for such a referendum was removed from the final version of the treaty.
Veneer Of Legitamacy
Tibilov's announcement thus represents a reversal of both Russian and South Ossetian policy. In that respect, it is reasonable to assume the initiative was dictated to him by Moscow and may have been intended as a response to last week's decision by Fatou Bensouda, prosecutor of the Hague-based International Criminal Court (ICC), to ask ICC judges to authorize an investigation into suspected war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by Russian, South Ossetian, and Georgian military personnel during the August 2008 war.
Two other factors may also have influenced the timing of Tibilov's announcement. First, the attention of the international community is currently focused almost exclusively on the conflict in Syria. The international response to Tibilov's gambit -- especially if the Kremlin declines to endorse it -- is thus likely to be muted, compared with the outrage triggered by Russia's annexation of Crimea 18 months ago, which was given a veneer of legitimacy by means of a similar referendum.
Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on October 20 that the subject of Tibilov’s discussion with Surkov was South Ossetia's "integration" with Russia, not the referendum mentioned by Tibilov’s press service.
Second, the prospect of losing all hope of regaining control of South Ossetia will inevitably exacerbate the tensions in Georgia between the ruling Georgian Dream coalition, popular support for which has sunk to an all-time low of 14 percent, and Saakashvili's United National Movement. Depending on the timing of the proposed referendum, the issue could dominate the campaign for the Georgian parliamentary election due in October 2016.
By contrast, it is unclear what impact the initiative will have on the domestic political situation in South Ossetia. Bibilov's One Ossetia garnered just 43 percent of the vote in last year's election, presumably largely as a result of his vigorous espousal of "unification" with Russia. What proportion of the electorate would vote in favor of unification is unclear. To date, only the Nykhas party, which constitutes the smallest of the four factions in the South Ossetian parliament, has come out in support of Tibilov's initiative.
Russian pundit Modest Kolerov, who is said to be close to the Kremlin, posted an analysis of Tibilov's proposal online just hours after it was made, in which he predicted that more than 85 percent of South Ossetia's voters would vote in favor of unification. At the same time, Kolerov made the point that the 15 percent who are wedded to the idea of independence and sovereignty constitute the political elite, and include many men who over the past 25 years have taken up arms to defend that hard-won status.
There has been no formal comment on Tibilov's announcement from Georgia's other breakaway region, the Republic of Abkhazia, which signed a Treaty on Union Relations and Strategic Partnership with Russia in November 2014 that envisaged looser and more flexible relations.
That treaty specifically obliges Russia to support Abkhazia's ongoing diplomatic efforts to secure formal recognition as an independent state from more members of the international community.