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South Ossetia’s Leaders At Odds Over Military Accord With Russia

South Ossetia's parliament speaker Anatoly Bibilov
South Ossetia's parliament speaker Anatoly Bibilov

For the past two months, the de facto president, defense minister, and parliament speaker of the breakaway Republic of South Ossetia (RYuO) have been engaged in an acrimonious dispute over a proposed ancillary agreement to the framework Treaty on Union Relations and Integration between the Russian Federation and the RYuO signed a year ago.

Russia is one of only a handful of countries that recognized South Ossetia as an independent sovereign state in the wake of the August 2008 Russian-Georgian war. Most members of the international community still consider it a part of Georgia occupied by Russia.

The Treaty on Union Relations and Integration made provision for “individual units” of the South Ossetian army to be subsumed into the Russian armed forces within the framework of a “common defense space.” The two successive versions of the draft ancillary agreement sent by the Russian Defense Ministry to its South Ossetian counterpart in late November and mid-December have not been made public, but they may require a larger-scale subordination of RYuO army personnel to Russian command than de facto President Leonid Tibilov and Defense Minister Ibragim Gasseyev are prepared to condone.

Parliament speaker and One Ossetia party chairman Anatoly Bibilov, however, who has consistently lobbied for subsuming South Ossetia into the Russian Federation at the earliest opportunity, has raised no objections to the wording of the agreement. That failure has given rise to speculation, which he rejects as misplaced, that he advocates abolishing the region’s army.

Bibilov is, moreover, clearly seeking to extract political dividends from the executive branch’s reluctance to sign the agreement, probably with an eye to the presidential election due in April 2017 in which he and Tibilov are likely to be the main candidates -- unless, as has recently been suggested, Tibilov’s predecessor Eduard Kokoity attempts a political comeback.

Tibilov’s position, as formulated in his February 19 annual address to parliament, is that “in order to preclude a repeat of the August 2008 [deployment into South Ossetia of the Georgian Army], South Ossetia needs its own national military formation, not necessarily a large one, but disciplined, mobile, well-armed, and professionally trained to conduct military operations effectively in mountainous and forested terrain and within populated areas.” He recalled that in 2012, he succeeded in persuading Russian President Vladimir Putin to annul an agreement Kokoity had concluded with Moscow on downsizing South Ossetia’s military, and thus “we managed to preserve our army.”

De facto Defense Minister Gasseyev likewise argues that “the republic should have an army that is capable of resisting aggression in the event of an attack on our country,” and for that reason, “the Defense Ministry is not prepared for a significant downsizing of the RYuO armed forces.”

The ancillary agreement envisages the downsizing of all combat-ready units of the RYuO army, Gasseyev explained in a subsequent interview. Some units will be transferred to serve under Russian command at Russia’s 4th Military Base in South Ossetia. The RYuO defense-ministry command will not be subsumed into the Russian armed forces and its status will not change. The agreement does not, however, Gasseyev continued, guarantee that those servicemen who are demobilized will be accepted into the ranks of the Russian armed forces, which he considers “unacceptable,” given that “we could end up with no army, and people will be left unemployed.”

The question of possible redundancies is all the more sensitive given that the total manpower was cut by almost 50 percent, to 1,250 men, in the spring of 2010.

Ekho Kavkaza quotes an unnamed RYuO defense ministry official as explaining that while the ancillary agreement entails the subsuming of “some” units of the RYuO army into the Russian armed forces, there is “no question” of abolishing the republic’s army, and the agreement does not mention possible dismissals. It was the RYuO Defense Ministry, that source said, which calculated that only 200 of its 800 servicemen meet the more stringent requirements of the Russian Army.

Ossetia’s criticisms of the executive branch’s stance ignore the wording of the ancillary agreement and focus primarily on the imputed failure of the Defense Ministry either to keep the parliament majority informed of the ongoing negotiations or to solicit its input.

Both those criticisms are unfounded, according to Gasseyev. He said the RYuO Defense Ministry received the initial draft of the ancillary agreement from Moscow on November 23, and within days communicated proposed changes. The Russian Defense Ministry sent a revised draft in mid-December that the South Ossetian Defense Ministry forwarded to Bibilov, followed by its proposals for fine-tuning the draft. Those proposals were also sent to Moscow.

Then in mid-January, before any response had been received from the Russian Defense Ministry, RYuO deputy parliament speaker Dmitry Tasoyev, in his capacity as the legislature’s representative on the working group tasked with fine-tuning the text of the draft agreement, posted on the parliament website a statement affirming that the signing of the ancillary agreement was being delayed by the “unconstructive and stubborn position” adopted by the republic’s Defense Ministry.

Tibilov responded on January 19 with an official proposal to Bibilov to convene an emergency parliament session in order to reach agreement on a mutually acceptable formulation. So, too, did the three minority parties represented in parliament.

Bibilov, however, ignored Tibilov’s proposal because, as he told RFE/RL’s Echo of the Caucasus, an emergency parliament session is not the appropriate constitutional format in which to discuss an interstate treaty. Bibilov suggested holding parliament hearings instead.

He went on to accuse the presidential administration of seeking a pretext to delay the signing of the ancillary agreement while offloading the blame for the delay onto the legislature.

Bibilov’s refusal to convene a parliament session was construed by some media outlets as reflecting tacit support for the abolition of the RYuO army. His fellow parliamentarian Pyotr Gassiyev categorically rejected those “dirty rumors” as untrue, and as intended to discredit Bibilov in the run-up to the 2017 presidential ballot.

Moscow, meanwhile, appears unfazed by the failure to finalize the draft ancillary agreement by the January 31 deadline. Ivan Boltenkov, who heads the Russian presidential administration’s section for relations with the Commonwealth of Independent States, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia was quoted on February 10 as saying that “work on any treaty is a two-way street,” and that it is not surprising that the two sides have adopted such a scrupulous approach to discussing the small-print. At the same time, Boltenkov expressed confidence that all remaining issues will be resolved in the immediate future.

There is, nonetheless, still a possible legal hurdle to be overcome. Alan Djussoyev of the social movement Your Choice, Ossetia points out that there is no such legal concept as the subsuming of military units of one national army into another, and no precedent for doing so.

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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