South Ossetia: Rise of a new Politics and Foreign Policy
In 2008, Russia and Georgia went to war over South Ossetia, a small entity just a short drive north from the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. Since that war, South Ossetia has declared itself an independent state, although it remains unrecognized with the exceptions of Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela and the island states of Nauru and Tuvalu. In reality, South Ossetia is overwhelmingly dependent on Russian aid, both monetary and military. Discussing the latest developments in South Ossetian politics, and what that means for its relations with Russia and Georgia, is Crisis Group’s Caucasus analyst, Medea Turashvili. 8:20
Download podcast (mp3) | Subscribe through RSS | Subscribe through iTunes
Welcome to this podcast from the International Crisis Group. I am Ben Dalton, communications and IT officer. In 2008, Russia and Georgia went to war over South Ossetia, a small entity just a short drive north of the Georgian capital of Tbilisi. Since that war, South Ossetia has declared itself an independent state, although it remains unrecognized with the exceptions of Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and the island states of Nauru and Tuvalu. In reality, South Ossetia is overwhelmingly dependent on Russian aid, both monetary and military. I’m here with analyst Medea Turashvili in Crisis Group’s Tbilisi office to talk about the latest developments in South Ossetian politics and what that means for its relations with Russia and Georgia.
Medea, how significant is the Russian presence in South Ossetia almost four years after the war?
In 2008, Russia recognized the independence of South Ossetia, and Abkhazi as well, two breakaway regions of Georgia. Since then, Russia has been establishing control in the area. It has been increasing its presence both in military, political and economic terms. For instance, the first thing after the recognition, what Russia did was to transfer money from the central budget to South Ossetia for the rehabilitation works - that is, to recover from the damage inflicted by the war. In addition, Russia has established quite a large military presence. There are, according to some estimates, up to 5,000 Russian military troops based in South Ossetia. In addition, there are 900 Russian FSB border guards who are stationed along the boundary with Georgia, as well as around South Ossetian boundaries. In political terms, Russia has sent his own men, let’s say, Prime Minister Vadim Brovtsev, who has no prior links to South Ossetia. He is a Russian citizen, but he was sent there to be in charge of and to control the money allocations to South Ossetia.
And if I am not mistaken, Russian aid comprises a huge percentage of the South Ossetian budget, is that right?
Yes, Russian aid comprises 99% of South Ossetia’s budget, since 2008.
South Ossetia recently held presidential elections which resulted in considerable unrest. Can you tell us what exactly happened with that? And the details of the players involved?
South Ossetia’s de facto president was Eduard Kokoity, who already served two terms. Now in November 2011, South Ossetia had elections where a new de facto president was supposed to be elected. There were two major candidates. One was opposition candidate Alla Dzhioeva, and the other was a member of the previous government, Anatoli Bibilov, who was openly supported by the Russian Federation. So much so that a few days before the elections, Demetri Medvedev, the president of the Russian federation, met him in a nice reception ceremony, which of course showed his support to this candidate.
However, the population voted in favor of the opposition candidate, not because the locals have anti-Russian sentiments, but because they were really disturbed and concerned about the problems that South Ossetia has been experiencing for the past several years. This includes corruption, unemployment, underdevelopment of the South Ossetia economy, and so on. Alla Dzhioeva was the winner, but the de facto South Ossetia supreme court annulled the elections with an argument that Dzhioeva supporters committed some election irregularities. Accordingly, many analysts tend to say these elections were stolen in South Ossetia. And the lady who was elected with more that 50% of the vote couldn’t become the president.
As a result, Dzhioeva mobilized the population in the town of Tskhinvali and demanded to become the president. Initially, the Russian Federation tried to distance itself from the development, but of course Russia’s role was quite visible there. It sent its mediators to South Ossetia, who then kind of brokered the agreement between the government and Alla Dzhioeva. But the agreement, according to Alla Dzhioeva, was not fulfilled by the government. Her demands which were put in the agreement weren’t fulfilled, so she withdrew from the agreement, and again started to assert that she was the legally elected president, and she set a date of her own inauguration on 10 February. However on 9 February, her office was stormed by a masked and armed group of people who allegedly beat her up, as a result of which she was taken to the hospital in Tskhinvali, where she remains until now. Edited for print
But it’s not like any of the candidates who were standing for President in South Ossetia were in any way anti-Russian or were running contrary to Russia’s interests. Why would Russia even want to become involved in the first place? And second, what do you think the implications of this dispute will be?
You’re right, all of the candidates basically are pro-Russia, provided that they understand the degree of dependence of South Ossetia on Russia, so much so that during the demonstrations in Moscow, Alla Dzhioeva, expressed her support of Vladimir Putin as a presidential candidate in Russia. South Ossetia is strategically important in military terms, because controlling South Ossetia would mean control over the entire South Caucuses, as well as having a military base in South Ossetia would mean military control of the South Caucuses as well as of the North Caucuses. So I think one of the motivations for Russia is a military.
In your opinion, among the population of South Ossetia, although this entity is very dependent on Russia and all of its politicians are publicly espousing their support for close ties with Russia, is there any hesitance on the part of the population that they are perhaps just becoming a Russian military garrison?
In South Ossetia, there is no clear understanding of their own future, where they want to see their country, as they call it. There are a group of people who sees that integration with Russia would bring them socioeconomic benefits, employment, etc. Even high-ranking officials in South Ossetia have been talking about unification with the Russian Federation. However, the recent developments in South Ossetia definitely increased anti-Russia sentiment because now they realize that Moscow is not always an honest broker, and they also realize the degree of their dependence on the Russian Federation. During the demonstrations in Tskhinvali in December, one would hear these anti-Russian statements. But still, I think the dependence at the moment is so big that there is very little room for the local population, or even local authorities, to maneuver with Russia.
Do you see any opening for negotiations with Georgia which have, for the most part, been quite frozen over the last three and a half years?
Any kind of breakthrough in Georgian/South Ossetia relations is unlikely in the near future. Yes, there are two level of negotiations: one in Geneva and one at local levels -- local levels meetings are described as more productive -- but it is unlikely that we will see any kind of breakthrough in these relations.
For Georgia, this region is occupied territory by Russia, and therefore Georgia ascribes all the responsibility for the development of this crisis related to elections to the Russian Federation.
That was Medea Turashvili Caucuses analyst for the international Crisis Group here in Crisis Group’s Tbilisi office. For more information on the South Ossetian crisis, please visit our website at www.crisisgroup.org. Thanks for listening to this podcast from the International Crisis Group.