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South Ossetia Referendum to Join Russia: Could there be war in Georgia between Russia and NATO?

Let's begin with an overview of the current situation. South Ossetia is a region that seceded from Georgia and self-declared as an independent state. It engaged in discussions with Moscow officials regarding the possibility of joining Russia, as reported by the Russian news agency RIA citing the head of South Ossetia's parliament on Sunday, March 17th 2024.

The current discussion about the South Ossetian referendum in June or July 2024, revolves around the possibility of the region becoming part of Russia. The chairman of South Ossetia's parliament, Alan Alborov, mentioned that they are considering the idea of holding a referendum on joining the Russian Federation. Alborov stated that they are discussing these issues in close coordination with Russia, taking into account their bilateral relations and treaties. The Russian-backed leader of South Ossetia, Alan Gagloev, also expressed hope that the region could be formally incorporated into Russia. This discussion indicates a potential shift in South Ossetia's political status and alignment with Russia, which could have significant implications for the region and its relationship with Georgia as a potential NATO and EU-member state.

But how did we get here? South Ossetia, a disputed region located in northern Georgia along the border with Russia, has experienced two main chapters of conflict: the first South Ossetian War from 1991-1992 and the broader 2008 Russo-Georgian War. Originating during the Russian Revolution, the South Ossetian Autonomous Oblast was established to secure Ossetian support for integrating Georgia into the USSR. The current conflict traces back to 1988 with the emergence of the South Ossetian nationalist movement which advocated for the regions autonomy. In January 1991, sporadic fighting erupted, leading to failed assaults on Tskhinvali, the Ossetian capital, and a ceasefire in June 1992.

Russia has played a significant role in supporting South Ossetia, providing military, economic, and diplomatic aid. The conflict escalated in 2008 when Russia engaged in a war against Georgia on behalf of South Ossetia. South Ossetia has become heavily dependent on Russia for basic supplies, with Moscow contributing to over half of the government and budget. In 2015, Russia signed a treaty to formally integrate South Ossetia's military forces and economy, effectively signalling a de facto annexation of the region.

In terms of the de-facto nations current diplomatic relations and foreign policy South Ossetia is a member of the Community for Democracy and Rights of Nations also known as the Commonwealth of Unrecognized states. Without the former de facto Republic of Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh), who fell under the control of Baku with the 2023 Azerbaijani offensive, the community now consist of three breakaway states in the territory of the former Soviet Union, namely Abkhazia and South-Ossetia both in Georgia and Transnistria in Moldova. What these post-Soviet de facto states have in common, is that they mutually recognize each other, but are largely diplomatically excluded / non-recognized by the international community. South Ossetia has diplomatic relations with five United Nations (UN) member states, namely Russia, Nauru, Nicaragua, Syria, and Venezuela. In 2014 the Donetsk People’s Republic of and the Luhansk People's Republic mutually recognised South Ossetia, before being annexed by Russia on September 30, 2022.

The implications of South Ossetia discussing becoming part of Russia with Moscow officials are significant, because it could heavily strain relations between Georgia and Russia. The move could also escalate tensions in the region and potentially lead to further instability or even armed conflicts. Additionally, if South Ossetia were to become part of Russia, it would likely face international condemnation, similar to the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states in 2008.

Unlike Transnistria and Abkhazia, whose strategic alliance with Moscow aims to ensure their territorial independence and political autonomy not only from Georgia and Moldova but also from Russia, South Ossetia has long been striving for a unification with North Ossetia which is a republic of Russia situated in the North Caucasus. In other words, while Transnistria and Abkhazia want to remain independent, South Ossetia seeks integration into the Russian Federation.

In my follow-up article I will therefore provide a fundamental analysis to outline future scenarios and the development of the security situation in the northern Caucasus, particularly focusing on the implications for Georgia, NATO and the EU.

Image: EPA/via Radio Free Europe

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