Sunday, January 19, 2014

Is Ossetian Reunification Just Russian Irredentism by Another Name?

When the Soviet empire collapsed in the great events of 1989-91, it meant that East and West Germany could become one and that Yemen and South Yemen could reunify, and it made the reunification of North and South Korea seem imminent too (though it turns out that could take a while).  But one much smaller Eurasian nation found, once the dust had settled, that they were now divided as they had not been for centuries: Ossetia.  Now that Ossetians are talking reunification, it may turn out to be a far more complicated business than it has been in Germany, Yemen, or even Korea.

Properly speaking, Ossetia was already divided during the Soviet period.  North Ossetia was the North Ossetian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, part of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (R.S.F.S.R.), while South Ossetia was the South Ossetian Autonomous Oblast, part of the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic.  But both the the R.S.F.S.R. and Georgian S.S.R. were, in turn, constituent republics of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.), and anything called “federal” or “autonomous” in the U.S.S.R. was a polite fiction in a party dictator ruled from the center.  For better or for worse, Ossetia was united.

Yeltsin and Putin
When Moscow lots its satellite republics, Russia’s new president, Boris Yeltsin, told the new Russian Federation’s constituent republics to “take on as much autonomy as you can stand” (an offer later scaled back in the First Chechen War and then permanent rescinded by Yeltsin’s authoritarian successor, Vladimir Putin).  Like other republics within what was left of Russia, North Ossetia (now called the Republic of North Ossetia–Alania—the Alans being the Medieval ancestors of modern Ossetes), declared itself “sovereign,” though not independent, in 1990 and then negotiated what it hoped were more autonomous terms by signing on to the Russian Federation treaty.

South Ossetia’s official seal
But the Republic of Georgia, in its transition to democracy, was less generous.  A separatist uprising in South Ossetia in 1989 was crushed by independent Georgia’s first president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, who crushed the uprising, abolished South Ossetia’s status as an autonomous republic, and blamed the uprising on the Mikhail Gorbachev and the Kremlin.  This led to a civil war, in which 100,000 South Ossetians fled to North Ossetia, which in turned sparked a conflict between North Ossetia and the Ingushetian part of the neighboring Chechen-Ingush Republic over whether displaced South Ossetians should settle in areas of North Ossetia that Josef Stalin (himself a Georgian from very near South Ossetia) had ethnically cleansed of Ingush in 1944.  (And that led to the break-up of the Chechen-Ingush Republic into Chechnya and Ingushetia—which is a story for another day).  Discontent in Georgia over Gamsakhurdia’s thuggishness led to a 1991 coup d’état, after which the new leader, Eduard Shevardnadze, signed a treaty with South Ossetia—and with another similarly rebellious republic within Georgia, Abkhazia—that essentially granted the two parts of Georgia de facto independence.  Georgians were angry about expulsions of ethnic Georgians from Abkhazia and South Ossetia—though not as mad as Gamsakhurdia had been, since most Georgians kicked out of Abkhazia had been his fellow Mingrelians, who form a proudly distinct branch of the Georgian ethnic group.  (Shevardnadze was also from Mingrelia, but was not militant about it.)  For the most part, Shevardnadze—Gorbachev’s former foreign minister—did not want a fight with Russia and did not want an unending civil war.

Mikhail Gorbachev and Eduard Shevardnadze
Shevardnadze’s successor, Mikheil Saakashvili, was less tolerant of secessionism.  He started with the low-hanging fruit—in 2004 reabsorbing Adjara, a mostly Muslim and culturally Turkified autonomous enclave in Georgia’s southeast, which had also grabbed a form of (undeclared) de facto independence.  Then, in 2008, he took the plunge and tried to retake South Ossetia once and for all.  He miscalculated, reckoning that Putin would not dare to directly militarily take on a state that was so friendly with the United States: apart from the Baltic States, Georgia has been the most Western-friendly and in particular American-embraced of the Soviet successor states.  But Putin did invade, and the U.S., which had no formal defense agreement with Georgia, stayed out of it.  Attacking Abkhazia by sea and South Ossetia via mountain passes from North Ossetia, the Russian military succeeded in keeping the two republics free of Georgian control and then underlined the success by granting them recognition as independent states.  Four countries have followed suit, notably Nicaragua and Venezuela (as a way of pissing off the U.S.) and Nauru and Tuvalu, two South Pacific microstates eager for Russian development funds.  (The larger Republic of Vanuatu, in the Pacific, toyed with the idea, then decided not to hop on board with the charade (as reported on at the time in this blog).)  Also, of course, South Ossetia and Abkhazia exchange ambassadors with one another and are also recognized diplomatically by two other post-Soviet puppet states: Transnistria, within Moldova, and Armenia’s puppet state in western Azerbaijan, the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic.

Mikheil Saakashvili chose war with Russia, and lost.
Nominally independent, Abkhazia and South Ossetia today are in reality puppet states of Putin’s Russia.  Both republics use the ruble and are defended by Russian troops and—as is also the case with Transnistria—Russia supplies the two republics with their infrastructure and the financial backing that allows them to survive.  In 2012 elections, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, more than 90% of whose residents hold Russian passports in addition to their mostly useless local ones, came out more strongly for Putin than any republic within Russia other than the beaten and cowed Chechen Republic.  Next month in Sochi, Abkhazia and South Ossetia will not send their own Olympic teams (Olympic officials would not allow it anyway) but will instead compete as Russians (as reported on recently in this blog).

Russian troops invading South Ossetia in 2008
Not much happens in the two republics that is not approved by the Kremlin.  When Alla Dzhioyeva, perceived to be an insufficiently pro-Moscow candidate who was critical of the sitting president, clearly won the South Ossetian presidential election in November 2011 (reported on at the time in this blog), the incumbent régime annulled the results citing supposed voting irregularities and then, when she tried to take office anyway, police thugs broke into her office the day before her planned defiant “inauguration” and beat her within an inch of her life.  On the morning of the day of the beating, Russian authorities blocked the one mountain pass leading into South Ossetia for supposed safety reasons and “accidentally” switched off the entire country’s Internet.  By the time Dzhioyeva got out of the hospital, a Kremlin-approved stooge was in place as the new president.  Such is life in Putinworld.

Alla Dzhioyeva in 2011
But politics in the Caucasus are ever-shifting.  When, in 2012, a new South Ossetian president, Leonid Tibilov, took over, he appointed Dzhioyeva deputy prime minister, a post she still holds.  And now, the man who lost the 2011 to Dzhioyeva, Anatoliy Bibilov, is a major figure in the opposition.  He won the first round in 2011 before losing to Dzhioyeva in the run-off, so in a sense he, too, feels like someone cheated out of power by the current rulers.  The political party Bibilov heads, One Ossetia (Yedinaya Osetiya), has lately taken up the cause of reunifying Ossetia, which had also been a long-term goal featured in his 2011 presidential campaign (one not shared by Dzhioyeva).

The snow leopard, the national animal of both Ossetias,
features prominently in the iconography of the reunification movement.
Reunification is something both Ossetias have in the past more or less ruled out.  South Ossetia’s “ambassador” to Russia, Dmitry Medoyev (not to be confused with Russia’s prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev)—whose function is in actuality less like an ambassador and more like Putin’s appointed “Minister for Running the South Ossetian Puppet State”—has said that South Ossetia has its own sovereignty and constitution and has no intention of merging with Russia.  Meanwhile, North Ossetia–Alania’s president, Taymuraz Mamsurov, has said, “North Ossetia is a part of Russia.  The issue is more about joining Russia, than a merger.  However, we, Russian citizens, know that Russia needs no new territories.  There is no interest for Russia to get new lands.”  President Mamsurov, a close ally and appointee of Putin’s who took power without ever running for office, thinks Ossetian unification is an “historical inevitability” in the long term, but does not expect it to come about in his lifetime.  He has in fact in the past accused the West of “Jesuitical plans” to unite the Ossetias as a way of absorbing both Georgia and a unified Ossetian republic into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)—suggesting a rather hallucinatory mindset given the West’s reluctance to help Georgia when push comes to shove and an implicit but clear and firm policy by NATO not to provoke Russia so far as to try to get Georgia to join (even though many Georgians would like nothing better).  Another factor may be North Ossetia’s status as the only majority-Christian republic in the volatile North Caucasus, a region wracked by fundamentalist Islamist insurgent violence.  Some Russians may see it as a necessary Christian bulwark within the North Caucasus; others may see those sectarian divisions as a potential for future destabilizing conflict.

There is not much daylight been North Ossetia’s President Taymuraz Mamsurov and Vladimir Putin
Bibilov, a military officer and South Ossetia’s former Minister for Emergency Situations (I’m not making that up), is proposing a referendum in South Ossetia—ideally in North Ossetia too—in order to see if Ossetians want to reunify, either within Russia or as an independent state.  Some observers feel that this is a political ploy, that Bibilov, as an opposition leader, is tapping into a popular yearning among the South Ossetian public but one that politicians on either side of the Caucasus ridge realize is a non-starter.  Nor is President Tibilov immune to the temptation to play to public opinion on the question.  Though he officially takes the position of South Ossetian independence with ever closer ties to Russia, he was quoted saying to reporters in July 2012, “The Ossetians are one people and should live in a single state within the Russian Federation.  And if this comes about under my rule, I shall consider that I have fulfilled the mission entrusted to me.”  But would he go so far as to act against the wishes of Medoyev and Putin?  Probably not.  Bibilov has quoted Tibilov’s off-the-cuff comments on the issue back to him angrily, but Tibilov firmly opposes such a referendum.

Anatoliy Bibilov (flags on his desk are South Ossetian and Russian)
As for North Ossetian public opinion, it is hard to say.  But it is difficult to imagine anyone in North Ossetia wishing that instead of their current position as a formal republic in the Russian Federation, they would rather be citizens of a quasi-official puppet state regarded by nearly the whole rest of the world as a sham nation run by criminals.  But an annexation of North Ossetia–Alania by South Ossetia would have a perverse logic to it.  For Russia to formally “surrender” a territory to a client state would put the international community in the position of floundering for a coherent position on North Ossetia’s status: happy to see Russia shrink even by a little, Western countries would be unable to recognize the territorial loss without also recognizing South Ossetia as a real country.

Fighters in 2008 waving the flag of South Ossetia, which is also the flag of North Ossetia–Alania
The other alternative, making South Ossetia part of a reunified Republic of Ossetia–Alania within the Russian Federation, would have the effect—desired by no one—of making Russian rule over a chunk of territory the world mostly regards as Georgian even more official.  Not that the international community would offer any concrete challenges, but why should Putin invite more diplomatic isolation at a time when his human-rights record is already under hard scrutiny in the weeks running up to Russia’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, just west of the Caucasus region?  After all, the very reason Putin is choosing the puppet-state approach is to enjoy the best of both worlds: recapturing two large chunks of a colony (Georgia) Russian nationalists were sorry to lose, while preserving a shred of plausible denial in the matter (though Putin’s smeary fingerprints are of course all over every facet of South Ossetian and Abkhazian political life).

Youths waving Abkhazian, South Ossetian, and Russian flags
The Georgian government has not responded to the referendum proposals but would be right to suspect that reunification would be, if it came about, a way for Moscow to tie make its de facto conquest of Georgian territory a de jure conquest as well.  But if anything Georgia is gradually getting used to the idea that the two republics have been lost.  As of January 1st, Georgia renamed its Ministry of Reintegration—the portfolio for recapturing Abkhazia and South Ossetia; it is now called the Ministry for Reconciliation and Civic Equality.  The new name seems to say, “Okay, we accept that you are separate countries, but treat your ethnic Georgian minorities well, maybe even let some expelled Georgians return, please?”  (Or, as Henny Youngman would say, “Now, take my Mingrelians.  Please, take my Mingrelians!”)  The ministry’s job also covers matters such as Adjara and the ethnic Armenian and ethnic Meskhetian Turkish peoples’ interests in the Samtskhe–Javakheti province bordering Turkey and Armenia.

“Take my Mingrelians—please!
Georgia’s president, Giorgi Margvelashvili (right), with his former prime minister, Bidzina Ivanishvili.
Bibilov now says that the One Ossetia party will hold a conference of North and South Ossetian activists next month in Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian capital, with the aim of crafting a “small-scale plebiscite” in South Ossetia that would “destroy the existing taboo” on talk of reunification.  But he had better be careful.  Some political taboos serve to keep the lid on a box of demons.  South Ossetia and Abkhazia are frozen conflicts and, as with the Cold War, the good thing about frozen conflicts is that people don’t kill each other.  Thaw out the ice, and who knows what will happen.

This is the flag some Georgian nationalists would like
for a South Ossetia reabsorbed someday by Georgia
[You can read more about South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and other separatist movements both famous and obscure in my new book, a sort of encyclopedic atlas just published by Litwin Books under the title Let’s Split! A Complete Guide to Separatist Movements and Aspirant Nations, from Abkhazia to Zanzibar.  The book, which contains 46 maps and 554 flags (or, more accurately, 554 flag images), is available for order now on Amazon.  Meanwhile, please “like” the book (even if you haven’t read it yet) on Facebook and see this special announcement for more information on the book.]

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