Badri Belkania, Research Fellow at the Rondeli Foundation
On May 30, the newly elected so-called President of the occupied Tskhinvali region, Alan Gagloev, signed an order on “Possibilities for Future Integration with Russia”, which overturned the pre-election decision of former de facto leader Anatoly Bibilov to hold a referendum on unification with Russia on July 17. The main question of this referendum was to be: “Do you support the unification of the Republic of South Ossetia and Russia?” The announcement of the referendum caused a significant internal political resonance in the occupied region, and a difference of opinion among members of society.
The cancellation of the referendum was not unexpected in the light of the developments that took place after the announcement of the referendum, and the local and international response, including that of Russia. First of all, this is connected with the defeat of former de facto president Anatoly Bibilov in the so-called presidential election, he being the initiator of the referendum. It is noteworthy that his move was immediately assessed by the local opposition as a populist act aimed at winning the elections, one which would not yield any tangible results and was focused only on gaining voters. As a result, the legitimacy of the referendum and the prospects for its actually being held were in question from the very beginning, especially given that the implementation of this idea required Bibilov’s victory in the so-called elections.
Bibilov’s rating had been low of late, and his name had been linked to a number of high-profile cases, including the most important one – the death by torture of jailed Inal Jabiev. Bibilov was accused by the population of protecting high-ranking officials involved in the case. Bibilov’s reputation was also shaken by his alleged corrupt connections; the so-called Chorchana-Tsnelisi crisis; accusations by the opposition forces of “territorial concessions” to Georgia; the inadequate and opaque embezzlement of funds from Russia; the suppression of opposing presidential candidates, and more. In light of this, Bibilov required a strong incentive that would gain the support of the section of society who was against him and turn the public sharply in his favor – in fact, he saw the illegitimate referendum as a positive political tool, but it was not successful.
Alan Gagloev, the winner of the so-called elections, had a cautious position on the issue. While he himself claimed that Bibilov’s announcement of the referendum was a false political act by which he was deceiving voters, at the same time, he stressed that joining Russia was a historic choice of the Ossetian people. But, he continued, the full integration required appropriate level of readiness. This caution is well reflected in the order by which Gagloev canceled the referendum. Although the cancellation of the referendum was the main purpose of the order, it was named “Possibilities for Future Integration with Russia”, as the need to set up “consultations with Russia” was the first article of the order. The second article indicates the list of those in the delegation that will represent the occupied Tskhinvali in these “consultations”. Even in such “packaging,” it is clear that the new de facto government of Tskhinvali is trying to approach the sensitive social issue with maximum caution, even at the level of rhetoric.
Two additional points were named among the reasons for the cancellation of the so-called referendum: “the ambiguity of the legal consequences of the issue” and “the inadmissibility of a unilateral decision on the referendum, which also concerned Russia’s rights and interests.” Prior to Gagloev’s decision, Russian officials, including Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, also spoke about the legal inadequacy of the referendum. According to Peskov, additional work is needed on the wording of the referendum, as it creates a “kind of legal impasse.” In particular, the term “unification” was problematic, as it, in Peskov’s words, signified the emergence of a new state, which is impossible. According to him, Russia is not taking any steps in this direction (bringing occupied South Ossetia into Russia) and no such thing is planned.
According to the information available in open sources, and the official statements made by Russia on the so-called referendum, it is clear that, at least at the public level, the Kremlin did not support the referendum. Russia has not made any statements in which it has ruled out the idea of annexing occupied South Ossetia to Russia (the annexation processes has been going on in the region for many years), but at this point it seems that Moscow is trying to use a different strategy. This was also confirmed in the statement of Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, seeing her welcoming the cancellation of the referendum and noting that Bibilov’s decision was not agreed with them. “We consider the cancellation order a sound step in the spirit of cooperation between our countries,” Zakharova said, adding that Russia respects the desire of the people of South Ossetia to build their future together with Russia. Bibilov’s decision to call a referendum even after the loss of the election was criticized by Konstantin Zatulin, a member of the ruling “United Russia” party and first deputy chairman of the CIS Committee on Foreign Relations. He said that Bibilov’s action is inappropriate because the referendum, if deemed necessary, should be appointed by the new president. In Zatulin’s words: “Currently, Russia does not need this referendum in any way, shape, or form.”
Such statements show that the referendum is not among Russia’s current priorities. Russia still wants to retain the occupied South Ossetia as one of its international gambling tools directed against Georgia’s territorial integrity, sovereignty, and Western course. Clearly, such an important political decision as the annexation of occupied South Ossetia to Russia would not be possible without Moscow’s permission. Moreover, even steps in this direction, including an illegitimate referendum, the results of which would not automatically mean a joining with Russia, would require Moscow’s special oversight and political will. If Moscow shows this will, it will not matter who the de facto leader of the occupied region at that time is, as they have only miniscule power given them by the Kremlin. Until then, the already logically canceled illegitimate referendum remains an internal populist move by the hopeless Anatoly Bibilov.
The impact of the cancellation of the referendum on Tbilisi is a separate issue. Clearly, any kind of illegitimate referendum in the occupied territories, the ultimate goal of which is the annexation of Georgian territories by Russia, is unacceptable to Tbilisi. Since the recognition of Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region in 2008, Russia has been actively pursuing a policy of integrating the Georgian regions into Russia, reflected in both a political and socio-economic convergence. A clear example of this is the military, political, economic, and legislative documents signed between the occupied territories and Russia, which significantly increase Russia’s influence in the regions and reduces the space of the local, although illegal, government.
In such a difficult situation, holding a referendum in occupied Tskhinvali, which is directly supported and managed by Russia, makes the annexation process irreversible and complicates the situation for Tbilisi. At this stage, it seems Russia is not accelerating the events and the cancellation of the referendum should still be evaluated positively for Tbilisi. Unfortunately, this does not mean that Russia is abandoning its aggressive foreign policy, or that it is not going use the occupied territories against Georgia in the future. The processes of illegal “borderizaton,” arrests and persecution of the Georgian population are expected to continue.
The cancelation of the illegitimate referendum is positive news, although there may be some challenges to it as well. This is, first of all, the revitalization of pro-Russian political forces, who have already assessed the cancellation of the referendum as a manifestation of Russia’s “goodwill” towards Georgia. These forces will try to use the incident to their advantage and convince the population that Russia is ready to make some concessions to Georgia if it is to pursue appropriate policies. This misleading message, which is aimed at disrupting the country’s Western trajectory, requires an appropriate response from civil society, specialists in the field, and representatives of political forces.