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An Occupied Region’s Referendum Brings Georgia New Iteration of Old Challenges

Georgia sees South Ossetia’s name change as increasing the threat of Russian annexation.

south ossetia
south ossetia

The occupied region of South Ossetia held a referendum Sunday for a new president and a name change -- one some see as a threat to bring the region closer to Russian control.

South Ossetia declared itself independent in 1992. That independence is not recognized by most countries or international organizations in the world. It is, however, recognized by Russia. South Ossetia was the site of the Aug. 2008 war between Russia and Georgia (it was after this war that Russia recognized the independence of South Ossetia, as well as that of Georgia’s other breakaway region, Abkhazia). In 2015, Russia signed a border agreement with South Ossetia. Russia financially backs South Ossetia. Economic hardships in recent years have not changed that. Russia keeps troops in South Ossetia.

If one were to recognize the referendum results -- which NATO, the U.S. State Department, the European Union, and the government of Georgia do not -- one would say that they gave South Ossetia a new president, Anatoly Bibilov. So, too, would one say that South Ossetia has a new name: South Ossetia - the State of Alania.

The occupied region of South Ossetia held a referendum Sunday for a new president and a name change — one some see as a threat to bring the region closer to Russian control.

South Ossetia declared itself independent in 1992. That independence is not recognized by most countries or international organizations in the world. It is, however, recognized by Russia. South Ossetia was the site of the Aug. 2008 war between Russia and Georgia (it was after this war that Russia recognized the independence of South Ossetia, as well as that of Georgia’s other breakaway region, Abkhazia). In 2015, Russia signed a border agreement with South Ossetia. Russia financially backs South Ossetia. Economic hardships in recent years have not changed that. Russia keeps troops in South Ossetia.

If one were to recognize the referendum results — which NATO, the U.S. State Department, the European Union, and the government of Georgia do not — one would say that they gave South Ossetia a new president, Anatoly Bibilov. So, too, would one say that South Ossetia has a new name: South Ossetia – the State of Alania.

That name change is significant because it mirrors that of North Ossetia – the State of Alania, which is a federal subject of Russia. The referendum stopped short of offering voters the mostly internationally unrecognized opportunity to reunify Ossetia, thereby bringing South Ossetia under (Russia would say) Russian control. But the name change brings the breakaway region closer to that point.

That’s a reality that doesn’t go unacknowledged by Georgians. “This is a clear provocation by Russia that seeks to undermine Georgia’s efforts at reconciliation and confidence-building between communities divided by the occupation lines,” David Bakradze, Georgia’s ambassador to the United States, told Foreign Policy. “This illegal attempt to rename one of Georgia’s historic regions to a name similar to one of the subjects of the Russian Federation is aimed at laying the groundwork for further steps towards illegal annexation.”

Even if the threat of annexation remains just a threat, the referendum is a promise to, at the very least, continue the status quo, one in which Russia recognizes — and actively supports the existence of — the independence of part of a country it used to rule. “The ongoing occupation of 20 percent of Georgia’s territory remains the greatest existential challenge that we face,” Bakradze said. And the referendum and name change and new “president” are all reminders that that challenge isn’t going away.

Or, to put it another way: Given that it’s been almost a decade since Russia’s war with Georgia, perhaps the case of South Ossetia serves as a reminder that, when it comes to what it considers to be its sphere of influence, Russia does not let go.

Update: This piece originally referred to South Ossetia as a “breakaway region.” It has been changed to “occupied region” in order to more fully reflect international law.

Photo credit: VANO SHLAMOV/AFP/Getty Images

Emily Tamkin is the U.S. editor of the New Statesman and the author of The Influence of Soros, published July 2020. Twitter: @emilyctamkin

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