On October 21, President Leonid Tibilov of the Republic of South Ossetia — an ethnically distinct region of Georgia which declared independence during the collapse of the USSR — has announced his tiny nation of 50,000 will hold a referendum on applying to join the Russian Federation. Many deride this move as an expression of Russian neoimperialism at its worst, but in all likelihood this is a move driven by the Ossetians. To understand the eagerness of Tskhinvali and the apprehension of Moscow on the issue of unification — or “re-unification” as many Ossetian politicians refer to it — we have to understand the unique history of the region and the reasons for Russian involvement there.
South Ossetia has always been unique among the Caucasian polities, starting early on in its history. During the Russian conquest of the Caucasus in the early 19th Century, only the Ossetians allied themselves with the Tsar, and ended up forming a lynchpin for Russian control in the region. According to the rhetoric of Ossetian politicians, including the current President Tibilov and both of his immediate predecessors, the Ossetian people have not since left the Russian fold. The rest of the international community, led by Georgia, would strongly disagree with that claim, as South Ossetia — the valleys and plateaus in the southern foothills of the Great Caucasus inhabited primarily by Iranian peoples — is considered Georgian territory by all states except for Russia, Venezuela, and Nicaragua. Additionally South Ossetia was organized as part of the Georgian SSR from 1922 onward, as the South Ossetian Autonomous Oblast (SOAO). This history is where the immediate controversy comes from, as when the Georgian Supreme Soviet of 1990 took advantage of the disorder of that period to revoke the SOAO’s autonomy and associated privileges, South Ossetia attempted to declare independence and dragged the nation into a brutal civil war littered with atrocities.
Whatever the original goals of the politicians of the Soviet of South Ossetia in fighting the government in Tbilisi, President Tibilov and his contemporaries have spun the struggle as a victory for Eurasianism in its epic battle against the false values of the West. From this perspective, although the Soviet Union may have fallen — no one makes any comments on the key role of the Russian SFSR in causing that collapse — the Russian Federation is its successor as protector of “Eastern” values in a line of common inheritance stretching from the Tsars to Vladimir Putin. Hence of popularity of “re-unification” with the Russian Federation, as it is not viewed as annexation by a foreign political entity, but a return to a centuries-old order rudely interrupted only by Western interference and Georgian tyranny. Due in part to the floods of displaced or frightened Ossetians inundating the Russian republic of North Ossetia-Alania during the civil war, most Ossetians have family on both sides of the border, and have strong professional and personal connections in Russia. This history — the veracity of which can certainly be disputed (although I caution that the truth rarely matters more than conception in Post-Soviet politics) — should help explain the particular and peculiar wishes of South Ossetia.
The strain of Eurasianism that would bind more of the former USSR into the Russian Federation is much stronger in Tskhinvali than it is in Moscow. Many key political figures in South Ossetia see membership in the Russian Federation as a way to secure their safety from hypothetical Georgian aggression, reclaim a sense of belonging lost in 1991, and more easily reconnect with their ethnic kin in the Russian republic of Ossetia-Alania. All but the youngest of the republic remember the attacks against civilians and burning of Ossetian villages during the civil war within Georgia — although few recall similar attacks by Ossetians against Georgian peasants — and many Ossetians see membership in the Russian Federation as their best security against aggression, a fear that has only been aggravated by NATO assistance to the Georgian armed forces. Full integration into Russia would also benefit South Ossetians economically, as commerce has been significantly hurt by the intense militarization of the region. The republic’s current quasi-independent status also drives away all but the most patriotic investors, depriving the region of much needed infrastructure and growth-boosting initiatives.
The potential reasons for South Ossetians to support unification are now clear, but — contrary to banal stereotypes of Russian expansionism — the Kremlin may not grant unionists their wish. Imperialistic ventures in Ukraine and provocations in the Baltic aside, Putin’s Russia actually has a history of being picky about members of the Russian Federation. The referendum in South Ossetia, whose date will be announced shortly, follows a similar vote last year in Transnistria — a mostly unrecognized state claimed by Moldova — when that nation requested to join the Russian Federation as well. Russia has entirely ignored this request, and seems entirely unwilling to incorporate the republic. Although the geopolitical situation is very different in South Ossetia, there is a good chance that the Russians may not accept a positive referendum. When Tibilov’s predecessor, President Kokoity, made suggestions that South Ossetia might join the Federation in 2008, they were strongly dismissed by Russian officials. Although President Tibilov is seen as a more more stable ally of Putin and distinctly less of a wild card than President Kokoity, there is still some doubt about whether he consulted the Kremlin before making this decision. Despite the immense influence exerted by the Kremlin, it is important to not deprive South Ossetia of agency; the referendum could certainly be a deliberate move by President Tibilov to listen to popular demand over his Russian advisors.
Moscow appears much less concerned with the interests of the Ossetians than it is with its position vis-a-vis Georgia. As evinced by the full integration of South Ossetian military and police forces in the Russian federal structure earlier this year, some figures within the Russian state are still interested in absorbing the breakaway republic, but it is unclear whether Russia would actually agree to the proposed expansion. Strategically, South Ossetia remains much more valuable as a quasi-independent state. South Ossetia in itself is mountainous and dreadfully poor — mountains and poverty are resources Russia is not lacking in its Caucasian republics — and offers no advantage as an integral republic not already offered as a de facto protectorate. Potentially the formal annexation of South Ossetia could be used as a political card to deligitimate and topple the pro-West Georgian government, but this would have to be on Russian terms and not to be used at a time when the Georgian government is already teetering on collapse. Whereas if South Ossetia remains in a legal grey area, the possibility of reintegration with Georgia can always be used to tempt a Georgian government into pro-Russian policies. Moreover, admission to the Russian Federation is a one-time political move, whereas Russia has been able to successfully manipulate Georgian politics for over a decade through an unincorporated South Ossetia.
Recent history and the complex geopolitics which play into Russian decision-making under the Putin regime both indicate that South Ossetia is unlikely to receive membership in the Russian Federation despite what I predict to be an overwhelming positive referendum with high turnout. A semi-independent South Ossetia simply has too much value as a way to manipulate Georgian politics for the Russians to allow its status to become settled or clarified. The real losers in this case will be the Ossetians. Right now they are nothing but a Russian pawn in global chess, and because of cruel realpolitik continue to live in fear and uncertainty. There are a number of reasons why South Ossetia wants to join — or rejoin — the Eurasian bloc now embodied in the Russian Federation, but primarily the simple desire to reconnect with relatives North of the border, work in a comparatively prosperous Russia, and finally end the fear of forcible reintegration with Georgia will drive Ossetian voters towards integration.
Should the result of the vote be towards federation, the West should not stand in its way. It is fine for Russia to play power politics for geopolitical gain, but because the position of Western hegemony depends so heavily on the moral high-ground, the West cannot afford to be Machiavellian. There are plentiful and obvious reasons why South Ossetia joining the Russian Federation is against Western interests — it would dash the fantasy of Georgian integrity, it would legitimate Russian occupation of the territory, it would set a precedent for accepting of Russian expansionism, it would finalize Russian military control of strategic areas, etc. — but these should not interfere with the liberal idealism that the West claims dominates its foreign policy considerations. If the West stands against South Ossetian membership in the Russian Federation, it stands against democracy, the right to self-determination, and the interests of the people. You can be certain that should this occur, the well-oiled and maintained machine of Russian propaganda will spread word of the West’s hypocrisy to ever corner of the globe, resulting in serious political consequences for Western power internationally. If the West retains any of its values, it will grin and bear the results of the referendum, if for no other reason than it will allow them to reap the rewards of acting in favour of democracy and best interests of the Ossetian people.