Open Democracy’s Stephen Jones takes a look at South Ossetia. Nominally independent since the 2008 Russo-Georgian war like Abkhazia, South Ossetians seem inclined to favour unification with their co-ethnics in North Ossetia, in the Russian Federation. There’s little prospect of that, though.
‘[I]ndependence’ will bring little to most South Ossetians – they will be condemned to isolation, marginality, and dependence. The prospects for cooperation with Georgia, its natural economic partner, and contacts with the rest of the South Caucasus through traditional seasonal work and cross border trade, are closed. In the 2012 South Ossetian presidential elections, all four candidates declared they would not engage with the Georgian government. Local migration to North Ossetia and Russia has accelerated, particularly among youth, adding to the SOAO’s demographic decline (villages are disproportionately made up of older women).
the 2012 elections, Alla Dzhioyeva, an anti-corruption crusader against Eduard Kokoity, the outgoing president (unrecognised by Georgia and the rest of the international community), had victory snatched from her by the South Ossetian Supreme Court. Dzhioyeva’s challenge had been unexpected, and she was not Russia’s preferred candidate. Although Dzhioyeva was later given a cabinet post, it illustrated the region’s limited political autonomy, underlined by the intimidating and unchallengeable presence of the Russian military. That court decision supported the Georgian contention that South Ossetia is a not a real state, but a Russian vassal, subject to Russia’s strategic goals. South Ossetia’s borders remain under Russian control, and South Ossetian foreign policy simply does not exist.
South Ossetia does not have the autonomous functions of a state able to provide for its citizens, 80% of whom hold Russian passports. There is constant talk (which goes back to irredentist demands made in the early 1990s) by Putin and local South Ossetian parties for a simple solution – union with North Ossetia. This means annexation by Russia because North Ossetia is part of the Russian Federation. United Ossetia, one of the nine parties running in the June 2014 South Ossetian parliamentary elections, has made union with North Ossetia central to its platform. It would be a popular decision. In a rare independent survey of South Ossetians in 2010 by Gerard Toal and John O’Loughlin, over 80% expressed the desire for union with the Russian Federation, and 82% wanted Russian troops to remain in South Ossetia permanently. Unlike Abkhazia, there is, paradoxically, little support for independence.
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There are, in addition, potential repercussions in the North Caucasus if annexation takes place. The North Caucasus, which consists of six non-Russian autonomous republics (which contain significant ethnic Russian populations) and over 40 national groups, is crisscrossed with conflict between clans, regions, religions and republics; there are multiple border disputes – between Ingushetia and Chechnya, North Ossetia and Ingushetia, between Kabardins and Balkars, and between Kumyks and Chechens in Daghestan, to mention just a few. Changing borders in the Caucasus is rarely accomplished peacefully, and right now Russia does not want to endanger its precarious control over the North Caucasian Federal District.