Eduard Kokoity, the former wrestler and South Ossetian separatist, today offered conflicting versions of his new country’s relations with Moscow, saying originally his new government’s strategy was to join Russia but now disavowing the comment and stating there was no plan to relinquish independence. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov reiterated Kokoity’s words and the Kremlin’s strenuous denial that such a merger would take place. “South Ossetia is not intending to link up with anybody,” he said. “They have understood that without a declaration of independence, they cannot ensure their own security.” Moscow’s most recent chess moves vis-à-vis Georgia and South Ossetia raises some eyebrows. As though it weren’t enough to have torn open a severe rift in relations with the West by invading Georgia, unilaterally proclaiming the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and promising Russia a military base, now Russia has Kokoity declare his vision for assimilation into greater Russia. This represents a historic and unprecedented event for the Russian Federation, standing out as the first annexation of another sovereign country’s territory by force since the fall of the Soviet Union. It appears the the siloviki’s zeal for conglomeration of industry has spread to a redefinition of borders. Or has it?
There’s several strong reasons I can think of as to why both Kokoity and the Kremlin swiftly retreated from this shocking announcement – it could completely de-legitimize what Russia has been arguing about the reason for war up to the present. In their view, it’s vitally important to the Kosovo narrative that Russia not annex South Ossetia. Russia is already running an often incoherent campaign in its continuing insistence over the illegality of Kosovar independence, while simultaneously recognizing new nations removed by force from a former Soviet state.Last February’s recognition by many Western countries of Kosovo’s independence from Serbia again lacked formal UN blessing (thanks to Russia’s threatened veto) and made it inevitable that the world’s youngest country would be cited as justification for other adventures. It’s clear that Kosovo’s independence, in particular, risked becoming an excuse for Russian recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.The blowback hasn’t been a lot of fun for the Russian leadership. Amidst criticism over Russia’s actions in Georgia, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin stated today that “Russia respects the sovereignty of its neighbors and has no intention of annexing any territories. (…) We have no desire or reason to encroach on the sovereignty of former Soviet republics,” he said at the Valdai Discussion Club.Mr. Kokoity has however acknowledged many are talking of reunification with North Ossetia within Russia, and insists his words were merely fulfilling an oath undertaken by his ancestors in 1774 to remain loyal to the Kremlin. (!) Such statements of loyalty only serve as an ominous warning that if South Ossetia wishes to remain independent today, it may not be so tomorrow, and if that is indeed the case, then the Kremlin would be responsible for exacerbating tenions with international community, and instigating political and economic turmoil in exchange for the consolidation of regional influence – perhaps righting what Mr. Putin has once claimed was the greatest tragedy of the 20th century.After one finishes scratching their head, they must ask themselves the question the Economist eloquently asked; ” Is the Kremlin playing the role of peacekeeper or piece-keeper?”When you finish thinking about that, give some thought to how this fiasco of an announcement was made possible. Just miscommunication with an overly enthusiastic FSB stooge? Or were they throwing this out there to test the waters of international reaction? Still quite too early to tell.