South Ossetia’s recognition by the Russian Federation in August 2008 as an independent sovereign state failed to put an end to the debate, in which some local politicians declare that the region’s hard-won independence is non-negotiable, while others argue in favor of unification with the Republic of North Ossetia-Alania, which is part of the Russian Federation.
South Ossetia’s current de facto president, Leonid Tibilov, has been less than consistent on the issue. His election program stressed the need for strengthening the republic's sovereign status while crafting increasingly close ties to Russia. And in October 2012, he attributed the campaign for unification to unnamed forces seeking to thwart the consolidation of South Ossetian society.
Less than a year later, however, Tibilov told journalists that "the Ossetians are one people and should live in a single state within the Russian Federation. And if this comes about under my rule, I shall consider that I have fulfilled the mission entrusted to me."
The Yedinaya Osetiya (One Ossetia) political party quoted those words this week in a formal statement addressed to Tibilov asking him to schedule a referendum, to be held concurrently with the parliamentary elections due in June, on the unification of South and North Ossetia within the Russian Federation.
Yedinaya Osetiya was established in the summer of 2012 and registered in December of that year. It is headed by former Minister for Emergency Situations Anatoly Bibilov.
Bibilov was the candidate of the then ruling Yedinstvo (Unity) party in the November 2011 presidential ballot. The official results of the second round of voting, which showed opposition candidate Alla Djioyeva the winner with 57 percent of the vote compared with 43 for Bibilov, were annulled by the republic’s Supreme Court. Tibilov won the repeat election in March-April 2012, in which Bibilov did not run.
The eventual unification of the two Ossetian polities figured prominently in Bibilov’s 2011 presidential election program. But he simultaneously acknowledged that unification would be an arduous and protracted process. At the same time, Bibilov upheld the idea of a sovereign independent South Ossetia closely aligned with the Russian Federation.
Yedinaya Osetiya also initially expressed its support both for the republic's independence, and for the leadership of both South Ossetia and North Ossetia. At the same time, it listed several geopolitical options. In a statement released in February 2013, six of its leading members (not including Bibilov) affirmed that "the people of South Ossetia can in future decide on becoming part of Russia, or uniting with North Ossetia within Russia, or entering the Eurasian Union of Peoples in the capacity of a sovereign state, or it could take a decision on other forms of state reunification with Russia."
In order to discuss the proposed referendum on unification, Yedinaya Osetiya plans to hold a conference, to which speakers from North Ossetia will be invited, next month in the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali. It will also carry out what it describes as "a small-scale plebiscite" of the population of South Ossetia, with the stated aim of "destroying the existing taboo" on discussing a referendum on unification.
At the same time, the party admits that "the re-unification of Ossetia is a two-way street," and that "titanic work" will be needed in Russia for the planned referendum to yield the desired result.
Bibilov was quoted by the Ossetian state broadcaster on January 6 as saying that his party, which is not represented in the current parliament, will not initiate a referendum at this stage, as doing so would lay it open to the charge of using the issue for its election campaign. He added, however, that, if the referendum does not take place in June, Yedinaya Osetiya will hold it independently. Bibilov said an analogous referendum should be held in Russia, but doing so "could take years."
There has been no reaction as yet to the Yedinaya Osetiya initiative from either Tibilov or his North Ossetian counterpart Taymuraz Mamsurov.
Mamsurov, 58, is a fervent supporter of the idea of a united Ossetia within the Russian Federation, and even considers unification "a historic inevitability," but he admits it may not come about in his lifetime.
Nor has there been any official reaction from either Tbilisi or Moscow. With very few exceptions, the international community continues to uphold Georgia's territorial integrity and therefore views both South Ossetia and the breakaway Republic of Abkhazia as integral parts of Georgia, even though the leaders of the two entities unequivocally reject the possibility of voluntarily submitting to Georgian rule.
As a gesture of goodwill, the new Georgian government has nonetheless recently changed the name of the State Ministry for Reintegration to the Ministry for Reconciliation and Civic Equality.
As for the Russian leadership, having already incurred the opprobrium of the international community by formally recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008, it is unlikely to publicly endorse a course of action that would substantiate the existing accusations that it has annexed Georgian territory. (Whether it might nonetheless tacitly condone the campaign for a referendum on unification is a different question.)
Visiting Tskhinvali last month, the Kremlin's new point-man for the two breakaway regions, Vladislav Surkov, rejected as unrealistic even the suggestion that South Ossetia might accede to the new Commonwealth of Independent States' Customs Union comprising Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan.
Surkov pointed to the region’s moribund economy (in 2013, 90 percent of South Ossetia’s budget revenues comprised subsidies from Moscow) and the seeming inability of the current South Ossetian government to resolve even basic infrastructure problems.
Unification with North Ossetia, where the level of federal subsidies was 69 percent in 2012, would not necessarily improve the economic situation. The combined population of the two regions is approximately 800,000.
South Ossetian deputy parliament speaker Mira Tskhovrebova recently claimed that the idea of unification has become a "filter separating patriots from enemies," meaning that any South Ossetian official who instead backs the concept of an independent sovereign republic is branded unpatriotic, and thus a way for individual politicians to increase their popularity rating in the run-up to the June parliamentary election.
At the same time, Tskhovrebova also acknowledged that unification is "our people's centuries-old dream," and declared that "not a single Ossetian is against it."
A poll conducted jointly two years ago by the Moscow-based Center for Sociological and Marketing Research and an institute in Vladikavkaz (the capital of North Ossetia) similarly registered a high level of support for unification, at least in South Ossetia, where 80 percent of the population hold Russian passports. Of the 700 people polled, no less than 92.5 percent were in favor of the unification of South Ossetia and North Ossetia within Russia.
-- Liz Fuller