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Leonid Tibilov, the de facto head of South Ossetia (file photo)

Two months after announcing plans to hold a referendum on the incorporation of Georgia's breakaway region of South Ossetia into the Russian Federation, the de facto president of the largely unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia, has set a tentative timeframe for doing so. He told journalists on December 28 that the referendum should take place "long before" the presidential ballot due in April 2017.

Tibilov simultaneously proposed renaming the region the Republic of South Ossetia -- Alania, by analogy with the contiguous Republic of North Ossetia -- Alania, which is a Russian Federation subject. The Ossetians, an Indo-European people, consider themselves the direct descendants of the Alans. Approximately 65 percent of North Ossetia's population of 713,000 are Ossetians.

Changing the region's name, Tibilov argued, would underscore the predicament of an ethnic group divided between two polities, and thus pave the way for the eventual unification of the two Ossetian states within the Russian Federation, which Russian media quoted him as referring to as "the eternal dream of our entire people."

Tibilov said he plans to task legal specialists with drafting the requisite changes to the republic's constitution, which currently describes South Ossetia as "a sovereign,democratic, law-based state formed as a result of the self-determination of the people of South Ossetia."

Tibilov specifically referred to Article 10 of the constitution, which envisages South Ossetia entering into an alliance with other states and relinquishing part of its sovereignty.

Tibilov implied that his initiative to change the region's formal name was prompted at least in part by indignation at the recent formal opening in Magas, the capital of Ingushetia (North Ossetia's eastern neighbor) of a construction named "the Alan Gates." He construed the use of that name as a bid by the Ingush to appropriate part of the Ossetians' ethnic heritage.

Relations between Ingushetia and North Ossetia remain strained as a result of their brief but bloody conflict in 1992 over Ingushetia's territorial claims on North Ossetia's Prigorodny Raion, which had been part of the Checheno-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic until that republic was abolished following the deportation of both Chechens and Ingush to Central Asia in 1944.

Moscow's Reticence

At first glance, Tibilov's intention to schedule a referendum on eventual unification with North Ossetia is difficult to reconcile with the emphasis he consistently places on strengthening South Ossetian statehood. To that end, he recently decreed the long-anticipated establishment of a Constitutional Court.

On the other hand, if Tibilov intends to run for a second presidential term in April 2017, holding the referendum on unification will take the wind out of the sails of his most serious potential challenger, parliament speaker Anatoly Bibilov.

Bibilov called two years ago for a referendum on unification with North Ossetia, but Moscow, which had recognized South Ossetia as an independent state in the aftermath of the August 2008 war with Georgia, declined to support the idea. Indeed, when Tibilov raised the issue two months ago during a visit to Tskhinvali by Russian presidential administration official Vladislav Surkov, President Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov swiftly denied that a referendum on unification figured on the agenda of their talks.

There has been no comment on Tibilov's most recent statements either from Moscow or from North Ossetia, whose new head, Tamerlan Aguzarov, visited Tskhinvali to meet with Tibilov even before he was formally confirmed in office.

Just days before Tibilov proposed adding "Alania" to his republic's name, however, the Regnum news agency cited comments by a politician and a political commentator from North Ossetia, both of whom were less than enthusiastic at the prospect of South Ossetia becoming part of Russia.

Georgy Zozrov, who heads the North Ossetian chapter of Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, opined that the proposed referendum should not take place for another 15-20 years.

Political commentator Vladimir Kaloyev for his part argued that, while South Ossetia has the right to hold such a referendum, its results would not be binding for Russia.

Giorgi Kvirikashvili (right) is set to replace Irakli Garibashvili (left) as the country's prime minister. (file photo)

Zviad Kvachantiradze, who heads the Georgian parliament's majority Georgian Dream (GD) faction, announced at a meeting of faction members on December 25 that agreement was reached during talks the previous day on nominating current Foreign Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili as the country's new prime minister.Irakli Garibashvili announced his resignation from that post late on December 23 without specifying his reasons for doing so.

In line with the Georgian constitution, President Giorgi Margvelashvili must ask the parliament to approve Kvirikashvili's candidacy, for which a minimum of 75 votes is necessary. The various parties aligned in the GD coalition control 87 seats.

Kvirikashvili, Garibashvili, and parliament speaker Davit Usupashvili arrived together for the faction meeting on December 25 and were met with a round of applause.

Kvirikashvili, 48, was named foreign minister on September 1 despite his lack of any relevant experience. He holds degrees in medicine and economics and has spent most of his career in finance and banking. He was elected to parliament in 1999 on the ticket of the opposition New Rightists party, then from 2006 to 2011 he served as general director of billionaire philanthropist Bidzina Ivanishvili's Cartu Bank. Following the victory of Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream coalition in the October 2012 parliamentary elections, Kvirikashvili was named economy minister.

Asked by journalists to explain the choice of Kvirikashvili as Garibashvili's successor, senior GD law-maker Gia Volsky replied "he is a member of the Georgian Dream political family and has good data."

Those opposition politicians, primarily but not exclusively from the former ruling United National Movement (ENM), who long regarded Garibashvili as little more than a puppet in Ivanishvili's hands, are likely to construe the choice of a former close Ivanishvili associate for prime minister as corroborating that conviction.

According to speaker Usupashvili, the parliament will consider the composition of the new cabinet on December 28-29. Kvirikashvili said today there will be "no significant, dramatic changes." Finance Minister Nodar Khaduri, Health Minister David Sergienko, and Minister for Reconciliation and Civic Equality Paata Zakareishvili are reportedly at risk of losing their posts.

Insofar as GD's failure to deliver on its pre-election promises to speed up economic growth and reduce unemployment is one of the main factors behind its loss of popular support over the past year, the choice of a competent economist to head the government is logical. Whether Kvirikashvili can deliver the hoped-for economic upswing in time to reverse that trend in the run-up to the parliamentary elections due in October remains to be seen, however.

Speaking at a press conference on December 23, just hours before Garibashvili announced his resignation, ENM parliamentarian Zurab Chiaberashvili said the current government "has no vision of how to improve the economy." Chiaberashvili specifically called for the abolition of the profit tax in order to lighten the burden on business and help create new jobs.

A second ENM law-maker, Giorgi Gabashvili, opined that Garibashvili's resignation shows the current leadership is aware "what a catastrophe the country is facing." At the same time, he predicted that "nothing will change until Ivanishvili distances himself" from the workings of the government.

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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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