Deliberately integrated: South Ossetia headed for and into Russia

On March 18th, Russia ‘celebrated’ the first anniversary of its annexation of Crimea with yet another ‘take-over’: Moscow signed ‘a pact on alliance and integration’ with Georgia’s breakaway region of South Ossetia. It is equally symbolic that the event took place on the same day as the 31st round of the Geneva International Discussions (GID) on the crisis in Georgia, thus disturbing the “constructive climate for efforts to improve the security and humanitarian situation on the ground”, - as the EU HP/VP Federica Mogherini put it

Russia had already concluded a comparable agreement three months earlier with another of Georgia’s breakaway regions – Abkhazia (see “Abkhazia chooses Russia a la carte”). Yet, the South Ossetian version is more intense, as reflected in its very title: Russian-South Ossetian Pact on Alliance and Integration as opposed to the Russian-Abkhazian Pact on Alliance and Strategic Partnership. South Ossetians proved to be less sensitive about the wording, as they do not share Abkhaz peoples’ longing for independence (see “Abkhazia chooses Russia a la carte”), but rather would prefer being incorporated into the Russian Federation (see the chart below). 

Survey results on "What is your preference for the political future of your entity?"Source: Washington Post  

Several Russian formulations (accordant foreign policy, united single space of defence and security, etc.) that had been rejected and later revised by the Abkhazians (coordinated foreign policy, common space of defence and security, etc.), were originally included by South Ossetians in the version they presented to the Kremlin, thus emphasising their readiness to fully integrate with Russia. Accordingly, the Pact on Alliance and Integration with Tskhinvali, as a deliberate move on the part of the South Ossetians, contains provisions for a deeper fusion of foreign policy, customs regulations as well as security and defence matters than that with Sokhumi. In addition, in contrast to the Russian-Abkhaz treaty, the Russian-South Ossetian pact abolishes customs checkpoints between the two parties.

According to the treaty, South Ossetia is delegating executive power over its external policy (Article 1), border control (Article 5) and military (Article 2) to the Russian Federation, while Abkhazia agreed only to coordinate foreign policy and to harmonise its customs regulations with Russia and even secured joint command over the combined armed forces. It should be noted, however, that both Abkhazia and Russia as well as Russia and South Ossetia take on the responsibility of collective, mutual defence: an attack on Abkhazia or South Ossetia shall be considered equal to that against Russia and vice versa.

The procedure for granting citizenship is reciprocally simplified between South Ossetia and Russia, in contrast to the Sokhumi-Moscow pact, which only unilaterally commits Russia to facilitate the granting of the Russian passport to the Abkhaz people. Healthcare, social-economic and the educational spheres are similarly addressed in both treaties: Russia assumes responsibility for raising the health and educational standards, providing medically insurance (Article 10) and securing the socio-economic well-being of the Abkhaz and South Ossetian people, providing higher pensions and wages (Articles 9 and 10). Furthermore, homage is paid to the South Ossetian language, culture and art yet alongside the Russian language (Article 13), any mention of which happens to be absent from the Abkhaz agreement.

Overall, while the Abkhaz-Russian treaty exemplifies Abkhazia’s effort to maintain its independence (even if de facto) from both Georgia and Russia, it was South Ossetia that opted to enter into a deeply integrational agreement with Russia. This fact highlights Georgia's multifaceted concerns over its territorial integrity: one concerns Russia’s intrusive politics, the second is about Abkhazia’s asserting its independence and the third is the South Ossetians’ will to integrate into Russia. Moreover, regardless of how the regulations are articulated in a more or less integrational manner, Russia can always afford to interpret them according to its liking, especially now that it has assumed responsibility for collective defence. In other words, any armed provocation along the administrative boundary lines can result in a sequel to the 08.08.08 Russian-Georgian war and the emblematic meaning of the treaty can extend as far as Georgian concerns do.