Mixed Reactions to Ossetian Unity Accord

Unprecedented agreement between North and South Ossetia greeted with scepticism by some Ossetians.

Mixed Reactions to Ossetian Unity Accord

Unprecedented agreement between North and South Ossetia greeted with scepticism by some Ossetians.

In the midst of celebrations to mark the fifteenth anniversary of South Ossetia’s self-proclaimed independence last week, a large poster reading "Putin is our president!" seemed to sum up the mood in the local capital Tskhinval.

The September 20 celebrations came two days after the unrecognised republic of South Ossetia signed an unprecedented agreement with North Ossetia – a republic within Russia.

The document expressed a mutual aspiration for eventual unification between north and south. That implies that South Ossetia, which Georgia continues to regard as a sovereign territory that needs to be brought back under central control, could formally secede and become part of the Russian Federation.

After the September 18 signing ceremony, North Ossetian leader Taimuraz Mamsurov said unification was now “inevitable”, and his South Ossetian counterpart Eduard Kokoiti expressed similar sentiments.

Not surprisingly, the accord went down badly in Tbilisi, where the foreign ministry sent a furious protest to Moscow saying, "The Russian government is fully responsible for any actions undertaken by its regional authorities [ie. North Ossetia], and the Georgian foreign ministry interprets the action by the head of the North Ossetian republic as a hostile gesture by Russia to encourage separatism."

The Georgians went on to demand that Moscow take immediate action, and warned of possible volatility in the region, and tension in diplomatic relations with Russia.

Since coming to power in 2001, Kokoiti has made unification with "our brothers in the north", and hence also with Russia, the cornerstone of his policy. Under his rule, South Ossetians have been able to obtain Russian citizenship, which 98 per cent of them have done.

But it is only since Mamsurov came to power in North Ossetia in June 2005 that the two republics have drawn closer. He rode into office on a wave of popular anger over the way last year’s school siege tragedy in Beslan had been handled.

The historic agreement gave new meaning to the South Ossetian independence celebrations.

In what was intended as an impressive show of force, a military parade was held in Tskhinval. Armoured vehicles with carnations poking out of their barrels trundled down the main thoroughfare.

Spectators included President Sergei Bagapsh of Abkhazia, another republic which has declared itself independent of Georgia; representatives from Transdnestria and Nagorny Karabakh – which broke away from Moldova and Azerbaijan, respectively – plus members of the Russian parliament who favour Ossetian unification.

Mikhail Markelov from Russia’s Rodina party, suggests the recent developments are an ideal opportunity for Moscow to bring South Ossetia into its embrace.

"The restraining factor for us has always been the presence of Russian military bases in Georgia,” he said. “Now that they’ve gone, there’s nothing to hold us back.” As an afterthought, he said, “That might change if NATO sets up military bases” in Georgia.

Markelov admitted, however, that his opinions were not shared by most members of the Russian Duma, "Unfortunately, the majority in the Russian parliament blocks proposals to review questions concerning South Ossetia. But sooner or later the Russian leadership will change. Of that I am sure."

The celebrations came to a standstill late in the day when three mortar shells exploded near the city centre, wounding ten people. Eyewitness Roin Bibilov told IWPR, "There were fears that this was an assault on the city, but there was no panic."

Immediately after the attack, Bagapsh said he had ordered Abkhazia’s armed forces to enter a heightened state of combat readiness.

Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili has asked the OSCE to carry out a detailed investigation. He has also instructed Georgian defence and interior ministry officials to find out what happened and to punish those responsible.

The mortar attack was a rallying point for some supporters of Ossetian unification over the border in Russia.

However, others like Vissarion Aseyev, a deputy in the Beslan local assembly, expressed scepticism that the unification project has any future.

"It is clear that Russia will never allow the two Ossetias to unite," Aseyev told IWPR. "Russia needs this [South Ossetia's separation] as a tool for intimidation.

“The Ossetians have become cannon fodder. First they set us against the Ingush, then against the Chechens, and now the Georgians. They're trying to convince us that our interests are the Kremlin's and that we should die for the Kremlin."

Despite a general mood of elation in the South Ossetian capital, not all its citizens shared the enthusiasm for a possible union with Russia.

"Can this be described as independence if everywhere you hear the slogan 'Long Live Russia'?" asked Tskhinval resident Inal Jussoyev.

"Under the previous president [Ludvig Chibirov], the republic was in limbo, nothing got done, and people's standard of living was even worse than it is now. But for all that, it was real independence."

How far is North Ossetia willing to go with unification?

A source inside Mamsurov's administration told IWPR, "We start from the position that we [north and south] are united and remain so, but that for 15 years now, attempts have been made to destroy this unity.

“We two leaders maintain that what we have today is the bare minimum, and we are not prepared to give that up. We can only move forward from this point.”

Alan Pliev, deputy director of the North Ossetian Institute for Humanitarian and Social Studies, cautions that any steps towards unification would need to be sophisticated – and that Georgia must be included rather than excluded from the project.

"Unification of the two Ossetias is like the unification of Germany was in its day…. If it were to be achieved, we’d certainly have solved the problem of ethnic unity,” said Pliev.

“But that's no longer enough. We need to solve our economic problems. "We need to create [an economic] zone with Georgia's participation in order to develop South Ossetia.

“We don't want unification where afterwards we live a cut-off existence in the Caucasus mountains."

Alan Tskhurbayev is a freelance journalist in Vladikavkaz.

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