Russia tightens grip on South Ossetia

By bne IntelliNews March 19, 2015

Monica Ellena in Tbilisi -


As Alexander “The Surgeon” Zaldostanov and his Night Wolves paraded through Sevastopol’s streets this week to celebrate Crimea’s whirlwind annexation by Russia one year ago, the Kremlin tightened its grip on another chunk of land beyond its borders.

The “alliance on integration” Russian President Vladimir Putin and South Ossetia’s leader, Leonid Tibilov, signed on March 18 represents a merger of key institutions, including security and customs, as well as a “simplification of procedures to acquire Russian citizenship”. The Georgian Foreign Ministry condemned the treaty, calling it an “actual annexation of occupied Tskhinvali region” by Russia.

South Ossetia and Abkhazia broke away from Georgia in the early 1990s as the Soviet Union collapsed. Russia officially recognised both regions as independent states after a brief war against Georgia in 2008. Since then the Russian Federation has effectively gained complete control over both regions.

Putin said that the implementation of the alliance “is backed by serious financial resources”, a statement that made the treaty sound like an investment deal. After inking the document, Tibilov hailed the agreement as “the best possible guarantee of state security”.

The treaty comes four months after Moscow signed the “alliance and strategic partnership” with Abkhazia, Georgia’s other breakaway region. Then Moscow pledged RUB9.2bn (€205mn at the time of signing, €142.4mn today) to Sokhumi - support that Vladislav Surkov, Putin’s aide in charge of relations with the two regions, promised will not fall short despite Russia’s economic challenges.

The West has condemned both treaties. The US State Department stated that it does not recognise the legitimacy of any so-called treaty between the de facto leaders of Georgia’s breakaway region of South Ossetia and the Russian Federation and expressed concern regarding the timing. The agreement between Putin and Tibilov was signed on the same day as the 31st round of the Geneva Talks, the platform launched after the August 2008 conflict. Georgia’s chief negotiator in the talks called the treaty and its timing a “deliberate insult” against these talks.

For the European Union, the agreement “goes against efforts to strengthen stability in the region”. Nato labelled it as “yet another move by the Russian Federation that hampers ongoing efforts by the international community to strengthen security and stability in the region”.

Deeper ties

The final text is similar to the treaty signed with Abkhazia, but it contains clauses that envisage a much deeper integration over a term of 25 years, renewable for an additional 10 years.

The Kremlin pledged RUB9bn (€139.9mn) for “projects for social and economic development” of South Ossetia between 2015 and 2017. The Russian President added that an additional RUB1bn (€15.4mn) will be allocated to implement “the goals” laid out in the treaty and added that between 2008 and 2014 Moscow’s assistance to Tskhinvali amounted to RUB43bn (€665.4mn).

It envisions a joint defence and security zone between the two countries, integration of customs agencies and an open border. It also contemplates setting up a Joint Information-Coordinating Centre of law enforcement agencies to “coordinate” the fight against “organised crime and other grave crimes”.

The Kremlin committed to co-finance a gradual increase of state employees’ salaries, bringing them up to current wages in Russia’s North Caucasus Federal District, and to increase pensions for residents holding a Russian passport from 2016.

Any choice left?

On the surface, both regions could hardly be more tied to Moscow than they already are. Their people – 240,000 in Abkhazia and an estimated less than 50,000 in South Ossetia – are left with few choices. They rely politically, economically, and militarily on their big neighbour. Russian troops help maintain their de-facto independence and the Russian market provides an economic lifeline. Russia sidelines the local languages in everyday life, the ruble is the local currency, and 90% of the population holds a Russian passport. Moscow also pays pensions to those with a Russian passport. As for Abkhazia, every summer hundreds of thousands of sun-hungry Russians flock to its pebbled beaches, providing much-needed income.

However, while Sukhumi has been maintaining its independence, even from Moscow, for years, South Ossetia has been more open to the idea of being reunified with its mighty neighbour. As Tbilov said on June 2, 2014, South Ossetia is already integrating with Russia, in preparation for joining the Russian Federation “at the right time”.

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