Moscow Not Ready To Risk Absorbing South Ossetia, Markedonov Says


Despite calls by the president of North Ossetia for uniting his republic with South Ossetia within in the Russian Federation, Moscow is not yet ready to take that step lest it trigger a new round of instability in the North Caucasus and further complicate relations with Moscow’s various foreign partners, according to a leading Russian analyst.

In an article posted online, Sergey Markedonov, one of Russia’s most thoughtful commentators on the Caucasus, says that North Ossetian President Taymuras Mamsurov’s May 12th call is hardly surprising given that the idea of uniting the two Ossetias has a history going back to the end of the Soviet period (

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, he writes, the idea of uniting the two Ossetias, one inside the Russian Federation and the other in Georgia was “intensively discussed on both sides of the Caucasus mountains,” in the South in response to the rising tide of Georgian ethno-nationalism and in the North for that reason and because of the North’s clash with Ingushetia.

Some in Moscow were prepared to back such a combination, seeing it “as an alternative to the parade of sovereignties that was then gathering strength.” Later, in March 1993, the North Ossetian parliament took the further step of recognizing South Ossetia as an independent republic, doing so 15 years “earlier than Russia,” Markedonov notes.

But from 1993 to 2004, Markedonov writes, the idea of combining the two republics was put on hold, as the result of Moscow’s policies and the approach of North Ossetia’s second president Aleksandr Dzasokhov, even though many Ossetians in both continued to be interested in linking their two republics more closely.
The Russian-Georgian war of August 2008 and Moscow’s diplomatic recognition of South Ossetia changed all this. But Mamsurov’s declaration earlier this month raises the question as to “the readiness of the Russian leadership to yet again revise the status quo in the Caucasus region.”

According to Markedonov, “the existence of South Ossetia creates more than a few political-level paradoxes. On the one hand, it enjoys some of the attributes of an independent state. But on the other, it is far smaller than North Ossetia which “is not an independent formation.”

North Ossetia is more than twice as large and its population may be as much as 15 times as great as South Ossetia, and North Ossetians have typically viewed themselves as fulfilling the function of “the elder brother,” not the junior partner. Moreover, all Ossetians know that “the South Ossetian project initially was defined not as a separatist but as an irredentist effort.”

Even after August 2008, the independence of South Ossetia, “in contrast to that of Abkhazia,” was viewed by most people in the region as “an intermediate result,” that would ultimately result in the absorption of South Ossetia into North Ossetia and the Russian Federation.

But there are compelling reasons, Markedonov argues, to think that Moscow is not prepared to take this step just yet and that Mamsurov’s comments have more to do with internal North Ossetian politics than they do with Moscow’s policies.

On the one hand, any decision to unite South Ossetia with the Russian Federation is “not a narrow regional question” but rather one that involves a range of domestic and foreign policies. Taking this step would not only exacerbate the Ossetian-Ingush conflict but energize the increasingly active Circassian movement, one of several seeking to overcome ethnic divisions.

And on the other, “recognition of formally external subjects by Moscow is not the same thing as joining new territories to the Russian Republic,” a step that would challenge the existing status quo across the region and raise questions among Russians foreign interlocutors about what Moscow might do next.

Indeed, Markedonov suggests, “a unilateral violation by Moscow of the status quo in the Caucasus could introduce new problems in relations with governments not only in the West” but also with those of Turkey and Iran, both of whom are also very much interested in maintaining the status quo.

Consequently, it is certain that Mamsurov was not speaking as Moscow’s representative but rather as someone forced to make such remarks given the political situation in his own republic which requires him to win legitimacy at a time when there are no elections and with a clear eye on his own political future, which will be determined by Moscow on June 7th.

. It is therefore not useful, Markedonov concludes, to view Mamsurov’s remarks as part of some sort of “big game” by Moscow officials, although he concedes that “it is impossible to exclude an interest on the part of certain highly-placed supporters of ‘a special path’” on this issue, whatever its consequences might be.

Paul Goble

Paul Goble is a longtime specialist on ethnic and religious questions in Eurasia. Most recently, he was director of research and publications at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy. Earlier, he served as vice dean for the social sciences and humanities at Audentes University in Tallinn and a senior research associate at the EuroCollege of the University of Tartu in Estonia. He has served in various capacities in the U.S. State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and the International Broadcasting Bureau as well as at the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Mr. Goble maintains the Window on Eurasia blog and can be contacted directly at [email protected] .

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