South Ossetia has recently taken further steps to integrate its armed forces and economy with Russia. What does this mean for the region? Will the uneasy truce with Georgia be strained? Leksika investigates.
On January 26th, 2018 the United States condemned Russia’s recent decision to create a joint military force with South Ossetia, a breakaway region in the South Caucasus. U.S. State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert stated in no unclear terms that “the United States fully supports Georgia’s territorial integrity within its internationally recognized borders” and that this decision is “inconsistent with the principles underlying the Geneva International Discussions, to which Russia is a participant.”
While headline-grabbing, such integration measures are in fact nothing new.
In March 2015, an integration deal known as the Treaty on Alliance and Integration, was signed in which the South Ossetian military and economy would be incorporated into that of the Russian Federation. The salaries of civil servants were raised, Soviet-era pensions were increased, and the process of acquiring Russian citizenship was made easier for all inhabitants of the ethnic enclave. South Ossetian leader Leonid Tibilov (a former KGB official) described the treaty as “the best possible guarantee of state security.” As the treaty was signed, crowds reportedly celebrated the one-year anniversary of the Crimea annexation, another enclave which entered Moscow’s orbit under similar circumstances. The Russian government has reportedly invested 43 billion rubles in South Ossetia, but international observers claim that “much of this has been lost in corruption.”
Though a strong symbolic gesture, South Ossetia has been economically and militarily dependent on Moscow since forcing Georgian troops out of the territory in 1992. Although Russia did not officially recognize South Ossetia as an independent state until August 26th, 2008, Moscow’s assistance was vital in keeping the territory functioning for this entire period. Russian peacekeepers guarded the de-facto border between South Ossetia and Georgia, greatly souring relations with Tbilisi, but winning the loyalty of the region’s roughly 50,000 inhabitants. The shelling of Russian forces in the territory by Georgian troops (and the return fire from Ossetian militias) was the immediate cause of the 2008 Russia-Georgia War, which threatened to collapse the entire Georgian state.
That the Treaty on Alliance and Integration obligates Moscow to come to South Ossetia’s defense in the event of an armed attack is therefore an obvious cause of concern for both Georgia and its Western partners.
The Georgian capital is currently preoccupied with its own political turmoil. Ex-President Mikhail Saakashvili (who may or may not be under arrest in Ukraine at any given time) has been sentenced in absentia to three years in prison on charges of abuse of power. Saakashvili is currently believed to be a stateless person, having had his Georgian passport revoked upon receiving Ukrainian citizenship, which was in turn revoked after corruption charges in 2017. He still maintains an influential network of supporters in both Georgia and Ukraine (as well as in the West) but would be arrested upon returning to Georgia at this time.
Additionally, Georgia faces an increasing risk of Islamist militants in its Pankisi region, a concern which may have led to the recent low-profile visit to Tbilisi by the Mayor of the Chechen capital Grozny. North Caucasus expert Neil Hauer has suggested that the mayor's meetings may be part of Grozny's attempts to deal with Chechen fighters returning from Syria: “Chechen authorities taking a serious interest in possible militant returnees from Syria. Kadyrov [the pro-Kremlin Chechen President] recently stated ‘terrorists have already reached Georgia, but we are prepared to meet them.’” Pankisi has long been a corridor for militants traveling to/from the North Caucasus, as it is a difficult border for both Georgia and Russia to police.
Such political unease, combined with the reality that NATO membership is not coming anytime soon, has led Georgia to look for other means of reinforcing its position. This has often taken the form of bilateral defense cooperation with the United States (embodied by the US-Georgia Defense and Security Working Group and the procurement of US arms, such as the ATGM Javelin missile which was delivered to Georgia on January 23rd) and trilateral defense exercises with Turkey and Azerbaijan. For now, however, Tbilisi has merely offered strong words in response to the Russian-Ossetian agreement.
The overall situation in the South Caucasus has not changed in any significant fashion. The Treaty on Alliance and Integration merely formalized what has been a de-facto relationship for over two decades. Georgian diplomats will likely raise concern in international forums, but is neither willing nor able to change the reality on the ground. Preoccupied with its own political struggles and security issues on other fronts, Tbilisi will likely seek to maintain the awkward status-quo which governs South Caucasian politics for the foreseeable future.