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Is South Ossetia's 'Independence' Under Threat?

Is Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (left) ready to welcome South Ossetia's Eduard Kokoity into his federation?

Is Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (left) ready to welcome South Ossetia's Eduard Kokoity into his federation?

Three years after the Russia-Georgia war that served as the catalyst for Moscow's recognition of Georgian's breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has suggested that South Ossetia could become part of the Russian Federation if "the Ossetian people" give their approval.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev took issue with that statement, affirming on August 4 that there were no legal or actual preconditions for South Ossetia to unite with North Ossetia as a Russian Federation subject. But Putin's trial balloon could add a new dimension to the political maneuvering under way in the run-up to the November ballot to elect a successor to de facto South Ossetian President Eduard Kokoity.

Kokoity, 46, is a former Soviet wrestling champion and career Komsomol activist who was first elected to head the breakaway republic in November 2001. Since then, and especially since 2008, he has become increasingly authoritarian, cracking down on dissent and opposition parties and concentrating political power in the hands of a select group of cronies.

Kokoity's second presidential term expires in November, and the republic's constitution precludes him serving a third. The South Ossetian parliament voted down a proposal by a group of senior army personnel to hold a referendum on amending the constitution to lift that ban.

Kokoity himself has repeatedly ruled out amending the constitution to enable him to serve a third presidential term. At the same time, he has made clear that he has no intention of quitting politics. He may have hoped to emulate former Russian President Putin and become prime minister, which would give him the additional personal satisfaction of ousting incumbent Prime Minister Vadim Brovtsev, a former Russian businessman from Chelyabinsk whom the Kremlin imposed on him in August 2009.

The two men have been engaged in a bitter feud for over a year. Kokoity and the media subservient to him have repeatedly accused Brovtsev and his cabinet of inefficiency, specifically with regard to the slow pace of reconstruction of infrastructure destroyed during the 2008 war.

The real bone of contention, however, could well be who gets to siphon off what proportion of the billions of rubles allocated from the Russian federal budget to finance that reconstruction. The Russian Prosecutor-General's Office launched an investigation last summer into the use of those funds after some Russian officials complained of "irregularities" in allocating funding for reconstruction.

An attempt by South Ossetia's parliament in early July to call a vote of no confidence in Brovtsev on the basis of a parliament commission's negative evaluation of the government's performance in 2010 not only failed, but triggered a walkout by the nominally pro-Kokoity People's Party. Kokoity responded by inviting "constructive opposition parties" to engage in "dialogue" and by reaching out to the extra-parliamentary social-democratic party Fydybasta.

Future President From Russia?

Kokoity has not said publicly who he considers most qualified to succeed him, only that the next president should be someone "who never left the republic, but took up arms to defend it." Amendments to the election law enacted in April already exclude any prospective candidate who has not lived permanently in South Ossetia for the past 10 years. That category includes virtually all opposition leaders now living in exile in Vladikavkaz or Moscow.

The Russian daily "Moskovsky komsomolets" reported last week that Kokoity told a meeting of his most trusted associates on July 16 that there were three potential presidential candidates, of whom the front-runner was Prosecutor-General Taymuraz Khugayev. Khugayev's sister is married to Kokoity's brother Robert. Khugayev has reportedly already submitted his resignation in order to prepare for his election campaign.

But according to Albert Jussoyev, a prominent and influential Moscow-based businessman and South Ossetian opposition figure, Khugayev is bitterly hated in South Ossetia for having harassed and imprisoned anyone who dared publicly criticize Kokoity. Khugayev's chances of winning a free and fair election would therefore seem to be minimal, but it would be naive to expect the ballot to meet those criteria.

The three political parties currently represented in the South Ossetian parliament have all signaled their intention to field a presidential candidate, as has Fydybasta, but none has yet selected one.

The Russian papers "Moskovsky komsomolets" and "Vedomosti" both claim the consensus among observers in Moscow is that the Kremlin wants to ease Kokoity out of power, possibly with a pledge not to probe the embezzlement of the funds it allocated for reconstruction, and ensure the election in a (by Russian standards) free and fair ballot of a more honest, amenable, and malleable successor.

One such candidate, by virtue of his long-standing association with Gazprom, albeit nominally barred by the residency requirement, is Jussoyev. In a long interview with "Moskovsky komsomolets" on August 2, Jussoyev affirmed his readiness to run, stressing that "I have experience [and] a team who know what needs to be done."

Jussoyev has, moreover, already drafted a program titled "To be Worthy of Russia." But when asked his views on the possibility of South Ossetia becoming a Russian Federation subject, he equivocated. "I cannot see a future for our people without the closest cooperation with Russia. You know very well that most Ossetians dream of the unification of our nation within Russia. [But] the geopolitical reality is that South Ossetia has become an independent state," he replied. That caution could, however, be purely tactical if Jussoyev has already received assurances that the Kremlin will find a way to circumvent the residency requirement and engineer his election.

Joining The North

Kokoity for his part has been less than consistent in his pronouncements over the past three years on the optimum relations between South Ossetia and the Russian Federation. On the eve of the first anniversary of the conflict, he was quoted as saying "we shall build our statehood, but in a union with Russia. We do not rule out entering the Russian Federation." The overwhelming majority of the population supported the idea of accession to the Russian Federation, he added.

Last week, Kokoity told a Japanese interviewer that South Ossetia aspired to create a union state with Russia while retaining its independence. And he responded to Putin's trial balloon by advocating that South Ossetia accede to the Russia-Belarus Union State once Belarus has formally recognized South Ossetia as independent. Deputy parliament speaker Yury Dzitstsoity (also rumored to be a possible successor to Kokoity) similarly spoke in favor of the republic's accession to the Russia-Belarus Union State.

Belarus has, however, consistently declined to recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia, whether in response to repeated pleas from Tbilisi or for fear of worsening even further its already strained relations with the European Union is not clear.

To date, there has been no comment on Putin's proposal from the Republic of North Ossetia-Alania, although Putin's reference to "the Ossetian people" implies that the population of that Russian Federation subject should have a say in any decision on merging the two existing Ossetian polities into one under Russian control to get rid of the "borders between them" that Putin dubbed "a problem." If the issue were ever put to a referendum, the North Ossetian vote would be decisive, given that the republic's population (712,900) is 10 times more than that of South Ossetia.

Enlarging the Russian North Caucasus by subsuming South Ossetia could prove political dynamite, however, in light of increasingly vociferous calls from Russian nationalists to cut loose the entire region as a drain on Russian resources. The Russian Finance Ministry has already rejected as excessive the Ministry for Regional Development's demand for 3.9 trillion rubles ($140 billion) in funds for the North Caucasus over the next 14 years. (Financially, however, subsidizing South Ossetia on the same terms as other North Caucasus republics might prove cheaper than bankrolling Kokoity.)

For that reason, the issue is likely to be shelved until after next year's Russian presidential election. If it forms part of Putin's long-term plans, however, he will have to move fast and skillfully if he wants to thwart Kokoity's bid to preserve his hold on power by engineering the election of Khugayev as his successor.

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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