Leonid Tibilov, de facto president of Georgia's breakaway Republic of South Ossetia, has been forced to abandon his plans to hold a referendum in August on amending the region's constitution to empower its leader to request South Ossetia's incorporation into the Russian Federation. On May 26, Tibilov and South Ossetia parliament speaker Anatoly Bibilov issued a joint statement announcing that the referendum will take place only after the presidential election due in early 2017.
The two men, who are widely regarded as the only candidates with any chance of winning that ballot, have long held diverging views on the optimum relationship between Russia and South Ossetia, and the time frame for achieving it. Moscow formally recognized South Ossetia as an independent sovereign state in August 2008, shortly after Russia and Georgia's five-day war over it and another breakaway Georgian republic, Abkhazia.
In January 2014, Bibilov publicly advocated holding concurrently with the parliamentary elections due in June of that year a referendum on the unification within the Russian Federation of South Ossetia and Russia's Republic of North Ossetia-Alania. And in early 2015, he criticized the planned bilateral Treaty on Union Relations and Integration between Russia and South Ossetia as falling far short of the desired level of integration. That treaty obliged Moscow, among other things, to work for broader international recognition of South Ossetia, which only a handful of countries besides Russia have recognized as an independent state.
Both before and after his election as de facto president in April 2012, Tibilov stressed the need to preserve South Ossetia's nominally independent status. At the same time, he described South Ossetia's incorporation into the Russian Federation as a separate federation subject (rather than merged with North Ossetia) as the long-term dream of the region's population, although he never suggested a time frame for it.
In October, however, just months after the ratification of the bilateral Treaty on Union Relations and Integration, Tibilov announced plans for a referendum on the region's incorporation into the Russian Federation. Moscow pointedly declined to endorse that initiative. Then in April, he floated the concept of forming a "union state" with Russia and simultaneously called for the holding of a referendum by August on amending South Ossetia's constitution to empower its leader to formally request its incorporation into the Russian Federation as a separate federation subject.
Bibilov immediately objected to that proposal, arguing that if a referendum took place, the sole question put to voters should be whether or not South Ossetia should become part of Russia.
Tibilov and Bibilov met on May 19 to discuss the planned referendum, after which Tibilov announced they would issue a joint proposal "within days." Then on May 23, Tibilov scheduled a meeting on May 26 of the presidential Political Council, which comprises representatives of both the executive and legislative branches.
That session lasted over four hours and at one point degenerated into a shouting match between Tibilov and Bibilov, who demanded permission to walk out on the grounds that "there have been too many insults directed at lawmakers." Tibilov refused to allow him to leave. Council members finally voted overwhelmingly (with just three votes against and one abstention) to "recommend" postponing the referendum until after next year's presidential ballot, and Tibilov acceded to that proposal. It is not clear whether the council discussed the wording of the referendum question as well.
The rationale for the postponement cited in the joint statement released later by Tibilov and Bibilov was "the need to preserve political stability" in the run-up to the 2017 presidential vote. But Bibilov himself told the Russian daily Kommersant that the current political situation could in no way be described as tense.
It is not known what other arguments Tibilov's opponents adduced, although Bibilov was quoted as protesting that there was not enough time to organize a referendum by August. Bibilov also predicted that if the referendum were held now, the vote in favor of joining Russia would be lower than the 99 percent registered in 1992. RFE/RL's Echo Of The Caucasus quoted the chair of breakaway South Ossetia's election commission, Bella Pliyeva, as raising the possibility that the vote in favor could be as low as 51 percent, or even that a majority might prefer independence. That would constitute a slap in the face for Russia, which subsidizes South Ossetia's budget to the tune of 90 percent.
The postponement of the referendum, and the continued lack of clarity over the wording of the question it will pose, constitute a setback for Tibilov insofar as a referendum on whether and on what terms South Ossetia should become part of the Russian Federation will now inevitably be the central issue in the election campaign. Bibilov's aggressive campaign for such a referendum certainly contributed to the victory in the 2014 parliamentary elections of his One Ossetia party, which controls 20 of the 34 parliament mandates.
A large question mark remains over Moscow's agenda. Russian President Vladimir Putin was quoted in April, just after Tibilov floated the idea of holding a referendum by August, as noting, first, that the precise formulation of the referendum question was still unclear, and second, that the Russian leadership would be guided by the will of the people of South Ossetia.
That latter remark implies that Putin anticipates that the referendum question will be the "Bibilov variant," meaning that voters will be asked whether or not they want South Ossetia to become part of Russia, rather than whether or not the de facto South Ossetian president should be empowered to petition Moscow for the region's incorporation into the Russian Federation. From Putin's point of view, a nationwide vote in favor of accession to the Russian Federation would give a marginally more substantial veneer of legitimacy to that annexation than a request by one man whose election the international community regards as devoid of legitimacy.
On the other hand, as Aleksei Makarkin, deputy director of the Moscow-based Center for Political Technologies, pointed out to the news portal Caucasian Knot, Tibilov's strategy of empowering the South Ossetian president to raise the question of accession to Russia at his discretion has the advantage for Moscow that it does not require an immediate response, and therefore would not necessarily precipitate a further deterioration in relations with the West. Tibilov himself told the Political Council that Russia was not currently even considering the possibility of incorporating South Ossetia precisely because it would create new problems in international relations.