Russia and South Ossetia are about to sign a “Treaty of Alliance and Integration.” If some minor details are ironed out, they could do so as early as this week.

The document goes much further than the treaty signed between Abkhazia and Russia in November. The Abkhaz re-drafted their treaty to keep several elements of their de facto sovereignty. The South Ossetian version, also written by Kremlin adviser and spin-doctor Vladislav Surkov, envisages the Ossetians conducting an “agreed-upon foreign policy” and hands over full control of their security and borders to Russia. South Ossetia is being swallowed up.

The treaty should come as no surprise. Moscow has been fully in control of South Ossetia since it recognized it as independent in 2008. Compared to Abkhazia, the population is tiny. South Ossetia had 100,000 citizens in 1989 but, after years of conflict and the flight of most of the Georgian population, just 21,000 people voted in the parliamentary election last June. The anomaly represented by South Ossetia’s supposed independent statehood, while North Ossetia, with a population of 700,000 is a mere autonomous region of Russia, has never been so glaring.

Most of the Ossetian public is happy with the treaty, particularly because Articles 8 and 9 of the draft stipulate that government salaries and pensions in South Ossetia will be raised to the level of those received in the Russian North Caucasus.

For the elite, it is the best of both worlds, as they will keep their nominal independence, with all the trappings and perks that brings, while getting closer to Russia.

As in Abkhazia, the unhappy ones are a segment of society which is suspicious of Moscow and wants South Ossetia to keep as much autonomy as possible. But their voice is not being heard—and indeed the website of the party they generally support was blocked last month.

The mystery in all this is what Moscow hopes to get out of the new treaty.

In November, in a speech to the State Duma, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said, “We are preparing a new treaty which will strengthen our relations with Abkhazia, we are widening our treaty-legal basis with South Ossetia and we are ready to continue the normalization of relations with Georgia.”

But of course normalization of relations with Georgia, a project that scored some successes in the last two years, is impossible as long as Moscow continues to strengthen its grip on the two disputed provinces. 

The Abkhaz treaty has already kindled new suspicions between Tbilisi and Moscow and drastically reduced any hopes that the railway running between Georgia and Russia via Abkhazia gets reopened. More conservative voices in the Georgian government are prevailing, and policy is increasingly defaulting back to the isolationist stance of the late Saakashvili years: blaming Russia for “occupation” and doing little to engage the Abkhaz and Ossetians.

Russia has some intrinsic strategic interests in Abkhazia, but almost none in South Ossetia. As it gets ready to sign the new treaty, the Kremlin is confronting the same dilemma it faces in Moldova and Ukraine: the closer it holds on to separatist territories, the further it pushes the big state away from Russia and toward the West.

  • Thomas de Waal