Russia makes its strongest statement yet about the South Ossetia problem

On June 1, Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin said: “We respect the principle of territorial integrity, but in Georgia’s case territorial integrity is still more of a possibility than a political and legal reality.” Kamynin spoke of self-determination for South Ossetia.

The verbal sparring between Russia and Georgia has reached its culmination. For the first time, the Russian Foreign Ministry itself has let it be understood that South Ossetia’s position also deserves attention.

On June 1, Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin said: “We respect the principle of territorial integrity, but in Georgia’s case territorial integrity is still more of a possibility than a political and legal reality.” According to Kamynin, such a reality can only be established by means of negotiations, “at which the starting position of South Ossetia, as we understand it, is based on another principle which is equally recognized by the international community: the right to self-determination.”

Kamynin’s statement came after another speech by South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoity, who said that he wants the unrecognized republic to become part of Russia.

Although Kamynin spoke of continuing negotiations, in the Caucasus his statement was perceived as having an unambiguous meaning. That same day, Eduard Kokoity confirmed what he had said in March: he intends to present the Russian Constitutional Court with documentary evidence that in historical terms, South Ossetia is part of Russia, not Georgia. Kokoity also declared his representative in Russia, Dmitri Medoyev, to be an “ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary.”

“We have the right to do this. Legally, South Ossetia is an independent state. Our people voted for independence at a referendum in 1992,” said Konstantin Kochiyev, Kokoity’s foreign policy advisor. So if South Ossetia is an independent state, “it can unite with any other country it chooses.”

Georgia’s reaction to Kamynin’s statement was not immediate, but when it did come it was stormy. Georgy Khaindrava, Georgian state minister for conflict regulation, predicted that the situation in the Georgian-Ossetian conflict zone will be exacerbated in the immediate future: “In recent days, the separatists’ unlawful armed formations have been busy with fortification work – digging trenches, and building bunkers on practically all heights. So I wouldn’t rule out some acts of provocation.” Khaindrava described the rotation of Russian military personnel as “a military operation, not a peacekeeping operation.”

A more restrained statement came from Konstantin Gabashvili, chairman of the Georgian parliament’s foreign relations committee. He told us: “In general, Kamynin didn’t say anything new. A blind man could see that Russia considers that land to be part of its own territory.” In Gabashvili’s view, Kamynin’s statement is part of a political game concerning the rotation of the Russian peacekeeping contingent. Georgia has demanded that Russian peacekeepers obtain Georgian visas; Russia has refused to comply, and “is making a threat in this way.”

Speaking in Azerbaijan on May 31, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said that the Russian peacekeepers are operating based on agreements reached with Georgia previously: “Those agreements made no mention of visa requirements for the peacekeepers, and we have no plans to cancel troop rotation.”

Is there any real prospect of South Ossetia becoming part of Russia? Hardly. Such a step would essentially amount to war with Georgia and a confrontation with the international community. For Russia, however, the threat of recognizing South Ossetia’s independence remains one of the most effective forms of leverage against the Georgian government. Besides, there is a precedent: the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus – with its independence not recognized by any country other than Turkey.

One explanation for the transparent hint in Kamynin’s statement could be that Moscow intends a conclusive solution to the South Ossetia problem. Vladimir Zharikhin, director of the CIS Countries Institute, told us: “There are two mutually exclusive principles, both recognized by the United Nations: territorial integrity and national self-determination. All inter-ethnic conflicts in recent times have been resolved by applying the second principle, and the Foreign Ministry is aware of that.”

A broader view of the problem makes it clear that South Ossetia’s recalcitrance isn’t the only issue here. At a recent summit in Kiev, GUAM (Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Moldova) was transformed into a permanent international organization; this move drew tacit displeasure from Moscow. One of GUAM’s goals is common policy with regard to “unrecognized republics.” And these problems were immediately exacerbated for GUAM member states. For example, there is a perceptible anti-Kiev slant to the protests in the Crimea against a visit to Feodosiya by American military personnel. The Trans-Dniester situation could deteriorate: its president intends to hold a referendum on the republic’s status. Azerbaijan has the unsolved problem of Nagorno-Karabakh. Clearly, GUAM leaders ought to refrain from any overt anti-Russian actions.

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A change of status for South Ossetia could draw a response from another former hot-spot: the Trans-Dniester region. Belgian Foreign Minister Karel de Gucht, the OSCE chairman, said on June 1 that a referendum on the status of this unrecognized republic is impossible. The OSCE would not recognize such a referendum or send observers to it. “Holding a referendum would only be possible once all the legal prerequisites for it are in place, as determined by the community and all international organizations. Those prerequisites don’t exist as yet,” said de Gucht.

The OSCE’s reaction followed an announcement by Igor Smirnov, leader of the Trans-Dniester Moldovan Republic, to hold a referendum by September. “It is likely to include questions about the CIS and how we should develop – with Russia or not,” said Smirnov, noting that the referendum would only be aimed at “consulting the people.”

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Vadim Gustov, chairman of the Federation Council’s CIS affairs committee:

This is a very harmful practice – continuing to divide Europe into fragments! Europe has had good reason for adopting, signing, and ratifying a number of agreements to the effect that territorial redistribution is unacceptable. After all, any fragment entails yet another border, and there are always people living along that border. And no boundary can ever ensure that all members of one ethnic group are on one side of the border, while all members of the other ethnic group are on the other side.

Take any republic or region in Russia – there at least 100 ethnic groups in any given territory. How could this ever be divided?! But current events in the former Yugoslavia have set a precedent. For example, there are 400,000 Azeris living in Georgia; there are also Armenian areas, and areas densely populated by Abkhazians, Ossetians, et cetera.

And what of it? In theory, of course, anything could happen. Yes, there is such a right, but it’s practically impossible to exercise. Two years ago, Russia passed legislation stating that if any neighboring country decides to join Russia, it has to hold a referendum and approach us based on the expressed will of its people. And Moldova would never let Trans-Dniester go (not even if referendums are held in both Moldova proper and Trans-Dniester). After all, the industrial resources of Trans-Dniester are substantially greater than those in Moldova itself.

Millions of questions arise about self-determination and separation – but these are territories, land, borders… If we start dividing fields and meadows, that means bloodshed and war! Is self-determination an option for ethnic groups in the United States? Just try to do it – you’ll get flattened immediately! The machinery of state is effective over there. There are some separatist attitudes in Spain, Canada, Germany, and France, but civilized countries simply won’t let that happen! It needs to be suppressed at the root. The development of separatism means destruction for the nation!

Sergei Bagapsh, president of Abkhazia:

Russia is an established, recognized state with domestic ethnic policies developed by tradition. A state’s character develops over centuries! And clearly, for peoples that live in a multi-ethnic state there is no question of any ethnic group’s right to self-determination being recognized.

But Abkhazia is a different matter. We have achieved independence and proved that we are a viable state. Now we’re striving for international recognition of our independence. In our case, the right to national self-determination is very relevant.

As for the territorial integrity of Georgia, nobody has broken this integrity. Of course, it was strange – but it was recognized in the borders of the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic, formed by Stalin in the Soviet era. However, at the moment of recognition, Georgia was no longer the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic! By that time it had withdrawn from the Soviet Union. Now, since 1993, Georgia has returned to its natural borders.