Things in South Ossetia have reached a crisis. Increasingly angry crowds are demanding that the candidate who clearly won the election, Alla Dzhioyeva, be allowed to take office as president. In fact, her supporters claim that she is president, after winning 56.7% of the vote in the November 27th election, and that the outgoing authoritarian regime’s annulment of the results, because of supposed irregularities by Dzhioyeva’s supporters, is illegitimate.
Russian and South Ossetian officials are trying to calm the crisis, but it is beginning to look a lot like Ukraine’s 2004-05 “Orange Revolution,” when street protests reversed a corrupt election which had tried to place a Moscow-backed candidate into office. That revolution was a defeat for Vladimir Putin in his goal of preventing Ukraine from allying itself with the west, and Putin has never really gotten over it.
South Ossetia, recall, is the autonomous region which most of the world recognizes as part of the Republic of Georgia but which, along with another such region, Abkhazia, had been a de facto independent state for many years. No one can agree who fired the first shots in the 2008 South Ossetia War, but the upshot was that Georgia tried to assert control over the two territories, but a Russian invasion prevented that, followed by Russia formally recognizing South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states. Currently, only Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Tuvalu, Vanuatu, and Nauru recognize the two countries. The last three Pacific island nations are doing so merely to court Russian investment, while Nicaragua and Venezuela are interested only in thumbing their nose at the United States. Not even the most toadying Moscow lapdog client-states like Belarus and Serbia are sending diplomats.
Ironically, South Ossetia and Abkhazia were freer before they were formally declared “independent.” At least then, they were just the dangerous neighborhood in Georgia where even the cops didn’t want to go. They ran their own affairs. But instead of just repelling the Georgian forces and restoring the status quo, Russia has turned them into Soviet-style satellite states. The tacit understanding, from Putin’s perspective, has seemed to be, “Do whatever we say and remember that you couldn’t even exist without us. And we’ll both pretend that this is ‘independence.’” But Putin never factored in one possible wild card: the South Ossetian people. The peoples of the Caucasus in recent decades have been fractious and ineffective, almost laughably so. Georgia has been falling apart, while Dagestan rivals Somalia as one of the world’s worst multi-ethnic basket cases. No one thought that South Ossetians would have their shit together sufficiently to use people power to reject Russian influence in the way that Baltic, Czech, Hungarian, Ukrainian, and other peoples have during the fall of Communism. But now they are. And no one quite knows how to react.
It seems that South Ossetia would like to be independent in the full sense of the word. The next few days may determine whether they will be able to, or whether Putin will use the scorched-earth policy he used in Chechnya to keep North Caucasus nations within his empire.