South Ossetia and Abkhazia face heightened political risk

South Ossetia and Abkhazia face heightened political risk

Political unrest in Abkhazia and the looming potential of a national referendum in South Ossetia increase the risk outlook for the two breakaway republics. However, the regions are likely to remain relatively stable as Moscow sees them as an asset to Russia’s strategy in the Caucasus.

In August, tensions soared as Russia accused Ukraine of planning to carry out terrorist attacks in Moscow-administered Crimea. Following some sporadic incidents, President Vladimir Putin and President Petro Poroshenko both took steps that further raised the risk outlook in the southern and eastern regions of Ukraine.

However, while Crimea appears as the most likely centre of an upcoming crisis in the Black Sea, two regions in which Moscow plays a primary role face a heightened risk of political instability. Both Abkhazia and South Ossetia are currently undergoing a period of changes that could deteriorate their internal stability outlook as well as their already fragile relations with Georgia.

Abkhazia: political instability and weak economy

The political stability outlook of Abkhazia has been under scrutiny since early July 2016. The two main opposition parties, the Bloc of Opposition Forces (BOS) and the Amtsakhara movement, organized a referendum calling for early presidential elections. The move was aimed at forcing President Raul Khajimba to resign. The ballot was inconclusive, as less than 2% of the total electorate cast their vote. Opposition activists claimed that the low turnout was caused by measures, such as a low media coverage of the referendum, taken by the ruling Forum for the National Unity of Abkhazia (FNUA).

Prior to the failed referendum, members of the opposition demonstrated in Sukhumi and tried to storm the Interior Ministry building. This raised concerns over potential additional incidents of violent unrest. BOS officials are likely to call for a new referendum and anti-government rallies are scheduled for the fall of 2016.

Abkhazia already experienced an unruly transition of power in 2014 when current President Khajimba forced out his rival, Aleksandr Ankvab, through mass protests in Sukhumi.

Failed economic policies are the main driver for political tensions in Abkhazia. The breakaway republic has so far failed to implement the reforms needed to improve residents’ well-being and solidify the territory’s economic structure. Abkhazia relies heavily on its tourist industry, which is almost entirely dependent on Russian travellers. Parties regularly accuse their rivals of being unable to push forward structural reforms and failing to tackle rampant corruption in the local bureaucracy.

South Ossetia:  the potential of a referendum

In South Ossetia, political stability is put in question by the current tensions sparked by the potential organisation of a referendum to join the Russian Federation. The president of the breakaway republic Leonid Tibilov and the local speaker of parliament Anatoly Bibilov have both been advocating for an enhanced independence of South Ossetia and a potential integration within Russia.

Both politicians’ policy priorities are relatively different in regards to what path to take in order to safeguard South Ossetia’s interests. However, they agreed in May 2016 that it benefits the republic to protect its autonomy, its relations with Moscow, and to gradually organise a referendum on the legal status of the territory.

President Tibilov initially planned to hold the ballot by August 2016. However, the head-of-state agreed with Bibilov to postpone the poll after the presidential election slated to occur in early 2017. By postponing the vote, South Ossetia’s authorities hope to strengthen local institutions and reach an internal agreement on how to best approach the potential request to join the Russian federation. The second point is especially important, as the region is highly dependent on Russian investments and political support. At the same time, President Putin has so far sent mixed signals in regards to Moscow’s position concerning a South Ossetia request to be integrated to Russia.

Given the fact that the breakaway republic’s independent status is only recognised by four states, including Russia, a key objective of local authorities is to safeguard the current integration treaties that link the territory with Moscow economically and politically. President Tibilov is well aware that a popular referendum would be deemed illegal by the international community and could spark further tensions between Russia and the West. As such, the timing of a potential ballot will likely depend on the evolution of Moscow’s situation in the region.       

Abkhazia and South Ossetia: still out of Georgian reach

Georgia continues to view Abkhazia and South Ossetia as occupied territories. However, the two breakaway republics are likely to remain out of Tbilisi’s reach. The aforementioned potential drivers of political instability in the two breakaway republics are highly unlikely to negatively affect the ties that Sukhumi and Tskhinvali enjoy with Moscow. For Russia, the control of the two territories is an asset used to exert its influence over the Caucasus. While Georgia is pushing for further integration within the European Union and NATO, its unresolved issues with Moscow will likely continue to hinder its pro-Western policies.     

Categories: Europe, Politics

About Author

Riccardo Dugulin

Riccardo Dugulin is an analyst at Drum Cussac, a global business risk consultancy. He specializes in supporting international organizations and large corporations operating in emerging markets by providing them with critical risk management intelligence. His regions of expertise are the Near East, the Gulf, North Africa and Continental Europe. He previously worked as project manager for a French medical assistance company. He gained field experience in the Middle East having worked for leading think tanks in Dubai and Beirut. Riccardo holds a Master in International Affairs from the Sciences Po – Paris and a Bachelor in Middle Eastern Studies from the same university. Follow him on Twitter @RiccardoDugulin.