By Paul Goble
Vladimir Putin’s response to a question about Russia’s possible annexation of South Ossetia has divided Russian experts about this possibility, with some suggesting that Putin’s words show that he will not annex the breakaway Georgian region but others saying that Putin will do just that after a referendum there.
Oleg Krasnov, a journalist for the Kavkaz-Uzel portal, repeats Putin’s words on his “open line” program and then offers the views of three experts about this issue, Orkhan Zhemal of Forbes, commentator Dmitry Oreshkin, and Ana Amelina of the Caucasus Geopolitics Club (kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/280977/).
Asked about whether Russia would take in South Ossetia, the Kremlin leader said that he had not discussed this issue in detail with the South Ossetian leadership. At the same time, he said, Moscow would not oppose a referendum on the issue and that “nothing restrains us besides the interests of the South Ossetian people.”
And he then added, “but for the time being we do not know what will be put at the center of this referendum and how the questions will be asked in their final form. Depending on that,” Putin said, “we will think more about this.”
Dzhemal said that Putin’s answer means that Moscow will not unite South Ossetia with the Russian Federation, and he noted that “Russia considers South Ossetia an independent state only formally given that the republic is supported at Russia’s expense and the majority of local residents have Russian passports.”
“South Ossetia,” he continued, “is in no way distinguished from any other Russian region” except for some lines on paper. And consequently, any referendum there is so much waste of time because “Putin has made it clear that he will not take South Ossetia into Russia.”
Oreshkin, however, suggested that Putin had not made any final decisions and wouldn’t until after the referendum. “Everything will be decided in Moscow after [that].” And it doesn’t matter whether the Kremlin says it has nothing to do with the referendum or not. Neither position changes anything.
Amelina for her part argued that Putin’s words mean that the Kremlin leader has already decided to absorb South Ossetia if the South Ossetians take the necessary steps to adjust to Russian realities and if such an annexation is useful for Moscow. That is all the more likely given the recent events in Nagorno-Karabakh which show just how fragile peace is in the Caucasus.
She said that those who think otherwise are wrong. Russia is quite prepared to absorb South Ossetia. In fact, she concluded, “Russia is prepared for even bolder steps.”