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26 May 2023

Georgia’s Occupied South Ossetia Set to Hold a Referendum on Joining Russia: What Does it Mean for Georgia?

Georgia’s breakaway republic of South Ossetia voted out Anatoly Bibilov as de-facto president in recent elections. But that didn’t stop him from decreeing a referendum on the entity’s possible annexation by Russia – even though it seems that nobody else publically supports such a vote.

Georgia’s Occupied South Ossetia Set to Hold a Referendum on Joining Russia: What Does it Mean for Georgia?

Tskhinvali City, in Russian-occupied South Ossetia. Image: martinttipia.com

South Ossetia is a Russian-occupied region of Georgia where a de-facto government held presidential elections last month, April 10. The results showed that none of the candidates crossed the 50% threshold. Acting president Anatoly Bibilov and chairman of the opposition party Nykhaz, Alan Gagloyev, went to the second round held on May 8. Gagloyev won with 54% and took office on May 24, 2022. The core issue of the presidential debate, initially raised by incumbent de-facto President Bibilov, was the proposal of holding a referendum on South Ossetia joining the Russian Federation. He referred to the war in Ukraine as a “window of opportunity” for South Ossetia to ensure security and prosperity with this decision. In one of the debates, he even advised schoolteachers to teach students the meaning of this term, regretting that a previous opportunity to join Russia in 2014 was lost because of a lack of knowledge. 

South Ossetia broke away from Georgia in the early 1990s but was entirely unrecognized until 2008. Following that year’s 12-day Russo-Georgian War, however, Russia recognized South Ossetia’s independence on August 24, an action followed by Nicaragua (in 2008), Nauru (2009), Venezuela (2009), Syria (2018) and some other self-proclaimed republics of the former Soviet Union states (Nagorno-Karabakh, Luhansk, Donetsk, Transnistria).

Since the war, Georgia’s foreign policy has been directed to the peaceful de-occupation and reconciliation of the breakaway regions. However, Georgia claims that creeping occupation is going on in both South Ossetia and Abkhazia, notably through ‘borderization’ (installing and progressively moving forward barbed wire and fences) and ‘passportization of locals’ (giving Russian passports to Georgian citizens of the occupied regions). They also assert that the de-facto governments have not allowed IDPs (internally displaced persons) to return to their homes. The suspicion that Russia might annex these regions of Georgia became more tangible after the annexation of the Ukrainian region of Crimea in 2014.

The Referendum – Why Now?

In both South Ossetia and Georgia, many initially thought that reviving the idea of an annexation referendum was all a part of Bibilov’s political campaign, deflecting attention from his administration’s failure to avoid crises during his term. In particular, he was seen as allowing many failures in local law enforcement systems. These led to the 2020 death in detention of Inal Jabiev, who had been suspected of blowing up the car of the entity’s de-facto Minister of Internal Affairs. When Jabiev was tortured and killed in prison, South Ossetians hit the streets demanding Bibilov’s resignation. Opposition leader Gagloev gained popularity as one of the leaders of these protest rallies. The former representative of the South Ossetian KGB expressed support for Jabiev’s family. Jabiev’s wife later established a civil movement to ensure the candidacy of Gagloev for the post of president of South Ossetia. Their efforts proved successful, and Bibilov’s popularity waned quickly. The referendum issue seemed to offer him a political lifebuoy, but it came too late, and public opinion was already too weak to save him. During the elections, Gagloev’s stance on the referendum was cautious, never explicitly supporting or opposing the idea. 

Thus, after the elections, many assumed that the referendum issue would be postponed. Russian parliamentarian Leonid Kalashnikov said: “I think Gagloev will wait on the referendum, despite the fact that he expressed the readiness to hold it. It's largely not up to them, but to Russians, how ready Russia and Belarus are to expand the alliance." South Ossetian politician, Roland Kelekhsov, commented: “all these statements about holding a referendum create additional foreign policy difficulties for Moscow, which it has enough of without us… Kalashnikov's words should be understood as follows: Do not run in front of a steam locomotive. The issue of holding a referendum in Moscow before the decision matures is a waste of money and nerves of Russian diplomats.”

Despite these dampened expectations, on May 13, Bibilov (then still acting de-facto president) signed a decree to hold a referendum on joining Russia on July 17, 2022.  The Supreme Court of South Ossetia upheld the draft of the presidential decree.

Later, President-elect Gagloyev made contradictory statements, first supporting the idea and then questioning holding it so soon: “as the son of my Fatherland and the president of the Republic of South Ossetia elected by the people, I fully support the idea of reunification[1] of the divided Ossetian people within a united Russia, another question is whether the historic moment has come when it is necessary to issue a decree on calling a referendum and speed up the process?”

Potential Fallout

The outcome of the referendum remains uncertain. But if annexation happens, it will create huge problems for Georgia. Right now, the country has an Administrative Boundary Line (ABL) with South Ossetia, but barbed wire fences keep unofficially shifting ever further towards territories controlled by the Georgian side - and there is no effective strategy to combat the creeping occupation. From Moscow, the issue is currently framed as “two independent countries with a history of multiple conflicts demarking borders.” But if South Ossetia becomes part of Russia, the border creep would be something far more insidious - with Russia officially moving its border ever further into Georgian-controlled regions. What should Georgia do in such a case? Once Georgia tried to deter this borderization by building a police checkpoint near the Chorchana-Tsnelisi villages. Bibilov reacted by closing the important Akhalgori crossing point in 2019, creating a humanitarian crisis in the de-facto Government controlled municipality. Luckily Gagloyev had promised to open Akhalgori after winning the election, and everyone hopes that locals will soon be able to get necessary medications, which proved a major problem during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Another concern for the people living near the ABL has been the abduction of citizens by occupying forces. Locals who have strayed across the so-called border have been detained, with Russia currently considering such activity illegal (even though de jure people are simply moving within Georgia). Most have eventually been allowed to return home for a certain amount of ‘bail’ money. However, there are more severe cases - for instance, Georgian Archil Tatunashvili was tortured to death in a Tskhinvali detention facility on February 22, 2020. When his body was returned almost one month later, his family claimed that his internal organs were missing. There are other scenarios when Georgians have been incarcerated for multiple years. One case was that of Zaza Gakheladze, reportedly gathering mushrooms in 2020 when occupation forces shot and detained him. Later Tskhinvali’s Court convicted him for 12 years and 6 months. He was released from prison after one year with the involvement of Georgia’s international partners.

Even though the situation near the occupation line is very grave now, it can only be expected to worsen after annexation. Then anyone straying across the line would be perceived as entering “Russian territory” without permission.

Recent statements from the new president, Gagloyev, give little room for optimism, saying that relations with Georgia will depend on the actions of the Georgian side. Nothing specific, nothing new, same old story. Even though, at this moment, it looks like nobody except Anatoly Bibilov explicitly wants to hold the referendum, it will be held nonetheless. The outcome will depend on Russia’s readiness to get involved in another headache while simultaneously in a War in Ukraine. If it happens anyway and South Ossetians vote in favour of joining Russia, they’ll prove just one thing: that their claim of self-determination was a farce promoted by Russia to create instability in the South Caucasus. But Russia’s neighbours are used to Moscow seeing itself above international law or historical realities. They just don’t care.



[1] North Ossetia is already a republic within the Russian Federation