Georgia responds to South Ossetia's intention to legally join Russia
Tbilisi’s reaction to South Ossetia’s intention to join Russia
On the evening of March 30, de facto president of South Ossetia, Anatoly Bibilov, announced that the republic would begin legal procedures to join Russia and eventually “return to its historical homeland.”
A plan of doing this was also specified: the first step is a referendum which will be held shortly after the April 10 presidential elections.
This is not the first time Tskhinvali has been asking to join Russia. Bibilov had repeatedly made similar statements in the past.
However, the most important factors in this case are the context, timing and Moscow’s reaction. Until now, the Kremlin did not want to annex South Ossetia, but today Moscow has welcomed this proposal. The Kremlin said it welcomed the initiative and noted that “Tskhinval should not pay attention to Georgia’s outrage”.
On the evening of March 30, after the announcement of the referendum, festivities took place in de facto South Ossetia. The youth also marched through the streets of Tskhinvali and waved Russian flags.
What is behind Bibilov’s statement, how did Tbilisi react to it, and how, according to experts, will events develop?
Statement by Anatoly Bibilov
De facto President of South Ossetia Anatoly Bibilov issued a statement on March 30.
“In 2014, when Crimea returned to its home, Russia, we also had the opportunity to realize our centuries-old dream, but we missed our opportunity then. We cannot repeat this mistake”, Bibilov said.
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Presidential elections in South Ossetia are scheduled for April 10. Bibilov has made similar statements more than once before, but the difference is that this time in Moscow, these statements were immediately followed by supportive comments.
“The people of Russia will support the decision of South Ossetia to join the Russian Federation. For us, this is a very important moment, because in 2008 Russia openly began to resist the pressure of the united West. Of course, this is a historic event”, said Artem Turov, Deputy Chairman of the State Duma Committee on the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).
Tbilisi’s reaction to Bibilov’s statement
In response to Anatoly Bibilov’s statement, the Georgian Foreign Ministry stated that “Georgia will not succumb to provocations”:
“Under the conditions of occupation, no referendum will have legal force. Moreover, hundreds of thousands of our citizens have been expelled from their homes and, as a result of ethnic cleansing, do not have the opportunity to return. We also have very strong support from the international community and our friends… We are committed to this path and declare that we will not use force to restore territorial integrity. This is our legal obligation, which is very clearly supported by the international community”, Foreign Minister David Zalkaliani said.
Bibilov’s statement is also regarded as provocation by the ruling Georgian Dream party. Beka Davituliani, a member of the parliamentary majority, says Russia’s reaction to Bibilov’s statement will be a signal to Georgia.
“We have to wait and see how Russia reacts to this. Russia’s position will be an additional message for Georgia. We must act in the national interest with all the resources at our disposal. At the same time, we must take into account the high security risks and act as carefully as possible to get the country out of this difficult situation in the region, and not cause even more damage”, Davituliani told reporters.
Imprisoned Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili says the borderization, to which the Georgian government did not respond, was a pretext for the annexation of Tskhinvali:
“They thought that if they hide, then Russia will not do it. With one speech, Bibilov brought to naught their many years of propaganda. Consequently, we are left practically without allies, marginalized in the face of this great danger. Maybe now they will come to their senses and take steps towards unity and work with the international community”, Saakashvili wrote on his Facebook page.
Giga Bokeria, leader of the opposition European Georgia Party, said Bibilov’s statement was more than a provocation. According to him, the enemy will complete the annexation:
“I do not blame our government for this step, I blame the government for not acting or acting against our national interests all these years. The only thing it thinks about is how to use Putin’s threat and people’s fear of war to maintain its power by sabotage methods”.
A similar referendum was held twice in South Ossetia under Presidents Shevardnadze and Saakashvili, says Paata Zakareishvili, a conflictologist and former minister for reintegration of Georgia. But then Russia declared that it was not interested in raising these issues. Now the context is different:
“It hung over Georgia like a sword of Damocles – it seemed that Russia would use it when needed. I think now is the time. It was not an accident that Bibilov raised this issue amid the war in Ukraine”.
Zakareishvili considers two versions. In his opinion, this is either another game to intimidate the Georgian state and strengthen the ruling Georgian Dream party, or Russia is really going to do it.
“If this is a game, the following happens: this is a deal between Tskhinvali, Tbilisi and Moscow – Tskhinvali will say that it wants to join, Moscow will say that it can hold a referendum and then Russia will think about it. A referendum will be held, a decision will be made which suits Russia, and then Moscow will say that now is not the time and Tskhinvali will have to wait. This will be considered a success of the Georgian Dream. You see, we have saved the situation, our cautious policy has brought results, they will say, this will strengthen the Georgian Dream.
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Zakareishvili considers the second option more dangerous – if Russia thinks that the world is already against it and it should grab everything it can:
“Then it will really hold a referendum and annex it based on it. That is, it will appoint the head of the region, not the president”.
Zakareishvili believes that this imperialist intention makes more sense for Russia because it is punishing the West:
“Russia is going for annexation. It does not care about the cautious policy of the Georgian Dream and the statehood of Georgia in the future. Therefore, it is better to take what it can and while it can. Abkhazia will be the next stage. Abkhazia is against annexation, so Russia will work differently there. Unlike us, unlike Tbilisi, Russia knows the difference between Abkhazia and South Ossetia, knows the difference between Ukraine and Georgia, and knows where to wage war”.
Zakareishvili says that this is not Bibilov’s initiative, but an instruction from Moscow, so Georgian Dream should act as follows today:
“They should say out loud – it is strange that our efforts to build good relations with Russia have such an effect. This leaves us no choice but to be more principled, more active and involved in general Western activities.
Bibilov gave Georgia a chance to reconsider its policy and propose it to Russia?! We have been doing everything we could for so long, we are dealing with this terrible opposition, attacks from the civilian sector and criticism from the West, in order to save the territorial integrity of Georgia and peace in Georgia together, and what is your satellite Bibilov doing?
Georgia must formulate its policy towards Russia.
It must unequivocally and clearly deny any favors towards Russia and directly participate in European, American and Western politics against Russia, because now Russia has given it a chance”, says Zakareshvili.
When asked if Georgia can rely on the West despite of its position related to the war in Ukraine, Zakareishvili replied:
“If we are left alone, it will be completely fair and deserved, but the West will not do this. For the West, values are above all, and it knows that it must not leave Georgia. The West will be more principled than Georgia. People should also protest against the pro-Russian policy of the Georgian Dream. They must respond to Bibilov’s statements. The West needs to see this mood”.