Vienna, October 24 – Less than two months from the time when the Russian invasion made it possible for South Ossetia to gain independence from Georgia (so far a status recognized only by Russia and Nicaragua), Ossetians are making it clear that they want to be truly independent and not under the control of Russian forces, according to a Moscow newspaper.
Writing in “Moskovsky komsomolets” yesterday, Irina Kuksenkova says that people in Tskhinvali are sending the following message, one that Moscow, many Russians and Moscow’s handpicked government there are certain to have problems with: “thank you for [our] independence, but now, go away” (www.mk.ru/blogs/MK/2008/10/23/society/377401/).
Despite the very real grievances many South Ossetians had with Tbilisi, their cause, at least in the form of the government in Tskhinvali, was largely Moscow organized and Moscow controlled. Even before the war, Kuksenkova points out, the republic’s defense minister, interior minister, and state security chief were all Russians who had come from the Russian Federation.
And the secretary of the Security Council there was a Russian officer who came as a colonel and has now left as a general to return to work in Moscow, a development that is already leading many Ossetians to insist that they and not the Russian forces are responsible for their independence.
Such feelings are likely to become stronger as Moscow pulls some of its people out of the republic, Kuksenkova writes. After all, these Russian officials “have completed their task” – the conquest of “a strategically important territory,” whose possession will allow Moscow a place des armes even if NATO admits Georgia as a member.
Tensions between Russian forces and Ossetians pre-date the Russian invasion, but clashes between them “literally several days after the [Russian] army entered the territory of Georgia and organized there the so-called buffer zone.” The Ossetians followed the Russians in and engaged in marauder raids on Georgian areas, outrages that have continued “to this day.”
On the one hand, that meant that Russian forces had to assume total control of the buffer zones lest the situation even more get out of hand. And on the other, it created a situation in which Kuksenkova reports there were “frequent cases when the mountaineers stopped Russian APCs.”
Now that South Ossetia has gained its long awaited freedom and independence, the Ossetians simply do not know what to do with it. Their ambitions are sky high,” and some of their anger at not being able to achieve everything at once is being directed now not at Georgia but at “their allies and liberators of yesterday” – Russian forces and Russian officials.
If tensions between South Ossetians and Russians continue to grow – and Kuksenkova’s article is one of the earliest indications that this may happen – that has three possible implications for the future, none of which will be welcome in Moscow but all of which may play a large role in the geopolitics of the Caucasus.
. First, such tensions and Russia’s obvious efforts to control Tskhinvali will make it even more difficult for South Ossetia to gain recognition from other countries. After all, if South Ossetia is nothing more than a new Russian possession, then arguments about self-determination collapse, and few will want to ratify South Ossetia’s new status.
Second, people in other “frozen conflicts” such as Karabakh and Transdniestria may, on the basis of the South Ossetian experience, begin to question more than they have in the past the role of Russia as an ally, given that Moscow’s actions in South Ossetia have not brought the people there what they believe they had been promised.
And third, such attitudes could if Tbilisi were able to design a new and sophisticated policy lead to a situation in which at some point, the South Ossetians might see renewed ties with Georgia, possibly in the form of a loose confederation, as a better protection of their nation than Russian occupation at least so far has proved to be.