Leonid Tibilov, the leader of Georgia's breakaway region of South Ossetia, has backtracked on his proposal last fall to hold a referendum on the region's incorporation into the Russian Federation.
Instead, Tibilov told journalists on April 4 that he reached agreement during talks last week in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the creation of "a single union organ" with Russia, to which South Ossetia would delegate its prerogatives. That approach, Tibilov explained, would avoid creating "political risks for our strategic partner," by which he presumably meant the widespread international condemnation and sanctions that followed Russia's unrecognized annexation of Crimea two years ago.
Tibilov said that it will be necessary to conduct a referendum on amending Article 10 of South Ossetia's de facto constitution to empower the president of the separatist entity to initiate the creation of a "single union organ." At present, Article 10 of the constitution specifies only that "the Republic of South Ossetia has the right to enter a union with other states and to delegate to the union organs the exercise of part of its prerogatives."
He said the referendum will take place "not in one year or two, not even in half a year, but sooner."
Tibilov did not specify what he envisaged by a "union state" or what powers South Ossetia might cede to it. Neither did he explain how the creation of such a union state dovetails with the provisions of the bilateral Treaty on Union Relations and Integration signed in March 2015, Article 1 of which obliges Russia to do all in its power to expand the number of states that formally recognize South Ossetia as an independent polity.
It is worth noting, however, that at the same April 4 press conference Tibilov stressed that South Ossetia will retain its own armed forces, given that the provision of the bilateral treaty that envisaged subsuming some South Ossetian military units into the Russian Army violates Russian law.
Lack of clarity concerning that anticipated downsizing or even abolition of the region's independent military capacity had given rise to an acrimonious dispute earlier this year between the de facto defense ministry and parliament speaker Anatoly Bibilov.
Commentator Yury Vazagov was quoted by RFE/RL's Echo of the Caucasus as suggesting that what Tibilov has in mind is something comparable to the Union State of Russia and Belarus that has existed for the past 20 years.
At the same time, Vazagov noted that it is not clear how the referendum question will be phrased, meaning whether voters will be asked to approve or reject the creation of a "Union State" or South Ossetia's incorporation into the Russian Federation.
Tibilov did not say how soon after the planned referendum on amending the constitution he would formally raise with the Russian leadership the question of creating the "union state." But it is logical to assume that he hopes to do so before the end of this year. His term in office expires in April 2017, and assuming he seeks reelection, his main challenger will be Bibilov, who launched a campaign two years ago for a referendum on South Ossetia's incorporation into the Russian Federation.
A second pundit, Roland Kelekhsayev, suggested to Echo of the Caucasus that Tibilov's "union state" initiative is intended both to "wrest the initiative" from Bibilov and "cut the ground from under his feet," and to demonstrate Tibilov's loyalty to Russia.
Moreover, in light of the international community's condemnation of Russia's seizure of Crimea, the Kremlin is more likely to look favorably on the author of an initiative that enables it to strengthen its influence over South Ossetia without laying it open to charges of illegally incorporating the territory of another state than on Bibilov's proposal that South Ossetia effectively provide Russia with a legal fig leaf for designating the territory as a Russian Federation subject.
That in turn raises the question: Given that as recently as late February Tibilov defended the idea of a referendum on South Ossetia becoming part of Russia and downplayed the possible negative repercussions for Russia's relations with the international community, might the "Union State" proposal not be his brainchild at all, but have originated with the Russian presidential administration, which duly instructed him to go public with it?