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Commentary | 19 March 2015

Picking Sides: The End of the Independence Option for South Ossetia

The Agreement on Alliance and Integration between Russia and South Ossetia was signed on the 18 March, South Ossetia’s most significant political event in recent years. The manner in which the Agreement emerged was so opaque that it is difficult to get the whole picture from open sources, unless you follow the discourse closely and have regular contact with people from across South Ossetian society.

Learning lessons from its experience with Abkhazia, where an analogous agreement was essentially imported and placed on the table (inspiring heated debates within Abkhaz society which resulted in a number of changes in the final draft) in the South Ossetian case, the Kremlin handed the initiative to develop the Agreement to the South Ossetians themselves.

The Agreement, and the way it was put together, served as tools for manipulation, both between Russia and Ossetia and within Ossetian society. The key issues discussed in public were integration and the preservation of independence.

Supporters of integration, or what I would term supporters of de facto incorporation of South Ossetia into the Russian Federation, use an argument that cannot be challenged in a post 2008 South Ossetian society:  it gives us security. And no-one can say anything against this dogma or mantra, even if some harbour doubts. In the public mind, the likelihood of military aggression from Georgia remains strong and only the presence of Russian military bases guarantees that armed conflict will not be resumed. Unquestionably, there was a lost opportunity in the failure to give those public actors in South Ossetia who think differently a chance to debate with those who support incorporation into Russia about the absence of such a threat.

Integration is seen as the solution to many practical problems: restoring infrastructure destroyed in the war, and resolving social problems in an idealised version of Russian reality. Integration is perceived by the people as the best mechanism to oversee financial flows from Russia, and to improve living standards to catch up with those of North Ossetia, which in its own way is a model to aspire to.

Additionally, supporters market integration as a way to resolve a very important question of Ossetian identity: reunification as one people.

It should be noted at this point that Ossetian-Russian discussions about the Agreement do not mention the reunification as one people. In fact, this idea has been skilfully ignored, and North Ossetia was in no way engaged in discussions about the Agreement. One gets the feeling that the Kremlin has been communicating directly with South Ossetian bureaucrats and political parties.

I would even say that elements within South Ossetia’s political elite were in competition to propose the best draft Agreement, in order to earn particular favour from the Kremlin. To put it even more cynically: it was homework for South Ossetia’s political elite, set by the Kremlin. And the marking of the homework will reveal the party and the leader that the Kremlin will place its bets on in the near future.

All this fuss, bother and haste over the Agreement, which comes after over 80 agreements have already been signed, has stirred up society and introduced uncomfortably mistrustful notes into public discourse. The people were amazed that the local political elite developed an interest in far-reaching national and strategic plans (in addition to their financial interest), and they suspect dirty tricks.

In a closed society, where everyone knows everyone else, rumours play a major role in the public discourse. For example, there has been talk that after the Agreement is signed, South Ossetia will no longer have its own armed forces. In my opinion, the fact that this rumour provoked significant anxiety in society shows a latent lack of trust in the presence of Russian military bases as a guarantor of security. Despite lacking open access to information, and without fully understanding what was going on, people began to openly ask questions such as for what did they fight, for what did people have to die, and for what did they endure the last 20 years if in the end they merely hand over their independence to Russia? Albeit rarely, some have even been heard to question what difference it would make – to lose ones’ identity as a nation to Georgia or to the vastness of Russia?

Picking up on the not entirely comfortable public mood, Russia’s response was both cautious and strategic. Valentina Matvienko, Head of the Federation Council stated:

“We have received alarming reports that a large number of countries, that are not only interested in economic and humanitarian cooperation, have begun to show interest in South Ossetia, nurturing NGOs that are trying to assist with building relations with Georgia, by which I mean step-by-step reintegration of South Ossetia into Georgia. This needs to be scrutinised very carefully, as by no means all NGOs are interested in South Ossetia’s development.”

This is an attempt to shift attention from the essence of the Agreement to internal enemies, backed by American and western finance and strategy, which are supposedly trying to return South Ossetia to Georgia.

The hidden message in this statement, bearing in mind the Sanakoev episode (when former Georgian President Saakashvili’s team cultivated and supported a parallel authority in several villages in South Ossetia, thereby practically cutting off the  path to the north, to Russia), reads in South Ossetia as follows: if these NGO people – who cooperated, and are still cooperating closely with Russian and local authorities and intelligence agencies, people who are in full view of everyone, in the sights of supervisors and controllers – if they have turned out to be bearers of a hostile agenda, then how many people might there be who are not even under suspicion, and who may form a fifth column leading South Ossetia back into Georgia. For example, what about those people who are engaged in smuggling contraband between Tbilisi and Tskhinval/i through Leningor/Akhalgori. As a rule these people are close to those in power: members of families of high-ranking South Ossetian officials. And from the perspective of the man on the street, it might seem that they could also be in collusion with these hostile NGOs, but just have not been found out yet.

And those overcome by fears of war, and even by the mere mention of Georgia – fears they imbibe from Russian television, which has been repeating for a long time that there is nothing worse in the world than NGOs – they have only one hope of salvation: quick unification with Russia, before the enemy within, in the clutches of the West, has managed to unify South Ossetia with Georgia.

In the minds of South Ossetian society, the choices have narrowed. Now there can only be incorporation into Georgia – or into Russia. Over all these years local NGOs, and their international partners, for various reasons, have not accumulated social capital among the South Ossetian public that could enable them to influence and take serious steps to combat the propaganda, even for their own protection. Thus they have turned out primarily to be tools for the manipulation of public opinion through Russian propaganda.

The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.