South Ossetia President Leonid Tibilov announced he is ready to unify the Georgian breakaway region with Russia.
“Today’s political reality is such that we must make our historic choice and be reunited with brotherly Russia so that we can ensure the security and success of our republic and people for many centuries,” he said. “The referendum, the positive outcome of which I have no doubt, will allow us to unite our people.”
Tibilov met with Vladislav Surkov, one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s advisors, but reportedly did not mention any referendum in the meeting.
“If I understand correctly, no such statement [about a referendum] was made at the meeting,” explained Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s press secretary. “It is well known that there are a great number of supporters of integration with Russia in South Ossetia. As far as I understand, that’s what Mr Tibilov was talking about.”
Russia performed a similar annexation on Crimea in March 2014 after they invaded eastern Ukraine and parliament ousted Russian-backed President Viktor Yanukovych.
Russia gained control of South Ossetia after the fall of the Soviet Union and tightened its grip after the brief 2008 Russo-Georgia War. The 2008 war drove out 192,000 people, and only 21,000 voted in an election in June 2014. South Ossetia’s small population appears to approve of the development, since two articles “stipulate that government salaries and pensions in South Ossetia will be raised to the level of those received in the Russian North Caucasus.” Some disapprove, but the government has suppressed their voice. Quartz reports the opposition party’s website was blocked last year.
In January, Putin revealed the Treaty of Alliance and Integration with South Ossetia. It allows Moscow to control South Ossetia’s foreign policy, border, and security.
Thomas de Waal, a journalist and expert on the Caucasus, described it as “Russia swallowing South Ossetia.”
“Effective annexation is the word,” he explained. “Is there any way back? Never say never–if the border with Georgia opens again, it makes much more sense for S Ossetia to be part of the economic space of Georgia.”
The two leaders signed the treaty in March on the one-year anniversary of Crimea’s annexation. Before he signed the treaty, Tibilov told reporters Russia is “the only guarantor for our people, for our republic.” He also thanked Putin “for everything.”
“A joint defence and security zone will be created between our two countries, our customs agencies will be integrated and border crossings for our citizens will become open,” stated Putin.
Russia and Abkhazia, another Georgian breakaway region, signed a similar pact in November 2014. Former KGB agent Raul Khajimba, the region’s new president, took over in August after the opposition rallied against Alexander Ankvab. The Kremlin allegedly had a hand in Ankvab’s removal. Al Jazeera reported then that Russia was one step closer to annexing Abkhazia. This agreement gave Russia a “dominant role in military and economic policy.” Due to poverty, the region’s 240,000 people rely on Russia. Moscow doubled “its subsidies to Abkhazia to about $200 million.” The West and Georgia condemned the agreement.