BACKGROUND: On March 16, the referendum on Crimea’s secession from Ukraine and its accession to the Russian Federation proceeded despite strong warnings from Ukraine and Western countries. Moscow denied that it exercised any pressure on the residents of the peninsula that are predominantly ethnic Russians. However, it is common knowledge that the Russian government orchestrated an armed overtaking of government buildings and infrastructure in Crimea, following the impressive victory of the revolutionary political forces in Kiev at the end of February. The revolution in Ukraine, where corrupt and authoritarian leader Viktor Yanukovych was ousted after months of street protests and the following Russian seizure of Crimea have vast implications for all involved parties and beyond. The parallels between the situation in Crimea and in the Georgian breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia are especially acute.
Moscow hastily recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states in August 2008 after a brief war with Georgia, despite protests from Tbilisi and Western countries. Since then, both territories have developed a complex relationship with their mighty Russian patron, which will likely be considerably affected by the events in Ukraine. After a brief period of debarment from the Kremlin’s corridors, the notorious Russian political figure Vladislav Surkov was appointed as an aide to President Vladimir Putin to oversee Russian policies in Abkhazia and South Ossetia in September 2013. Later, Surkov’s responsibilities expanded to Ukraine and other CIS countries. Putin’s aide has visited the Georgian breakaway territories several times after his appointment, signaling that Moscow may start a more proactive policy in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
In 2013, one of the local parties in Tskhinvali, United Ossetia, started lobbying for South Ossetia’s accession to the Russian Federation. South Ossetia's Minister for Emergency Situations, Anatoly Bibilov, is the head of the new party. In the 2011 presidential elections, Moscow openly supported Bibilov, but suffered a crushing defeat. Bibilov and his party now want to score points with the residents of the impoverished republic, advocating integration with Russia and resolving all South Ossetia's economic problems. The party is seemingly financed by some forces in Moscow as it is doing surprisingly well for a party that has no seats in the local parliament and is led by a person who lost elections.
Abkhazia was practically excluded from benefiting from the recent Olympics in Sochi, which gave rise to anti-Russian sentiments in Abkhazian society. The republic suffers from economic stagnation as the handouts from Moscow and tourism provide only for modest subsistence needs of the locals. Crimea's potential accession to Russia will diminish the size of the subsidies allotted for Abkhazia and South Ossetia from the Russian budget, as Crimea will require significant Russian investment. According to different estimates, Crimea may require several billions of dollars every year. In addition, the looming and worsening economic crisis in Russia will further diminish Moscow’s ability to support its overseas client states.
IMPLICATIONS: Moscow’s determination to annex Crimea has alarmed the West and produced a series of economic and political sanctions against Russia. The West is also likely to rethink its defense policy in Eastern Europe in connection to the changes in the region. Granting a Member Action Plan to Georgia later in 2014 is a real possibility now, according to the Russian newspaper Kommersant that referred to sources in the U.S. Department of State. If Russia and the West continue on the path to a full-fledged standoff, Russia is likely to move on to officially absorb Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Both Georgian breakaway territories are heavily dependent on Russia, but until now Russian officials have denied that Moscow has any plans to annex Abkhazia and South Ossetia even in a remote future. After the crisis in Crimea, Russia may consider such political maneuvering as excessive and unnecessary, openly including both territories into Russian Federation. South Ossetians have their ethnic kin across the mountains in North Ossetia, so the argument will be based on the unification of Ossetians as an ethnic group. Abkhazia has so far stuck to a much more pro-independence outlook than South Ossetia, but it may also be swayed to join Russia. An unofficial survey by Ekho Kavkaza radio station already showed that the majority of residents of the capital city of Sukhumi were in favor of joining Russia.
There are also notable differences between Abkhazia and South Ossetia on the one hand, and Crimea on the other. Ethnic Abkhaz and ethnic Ossetians fought ethnic Georgians when they were still part of the same country. Moscow was fueling both conflicts, Georgian-Abkhaz and Georgian-Ossetian, but regardless of the trigger of these conflicts, it still made the distrust between the conflicting parties a fact of life. In Crimea, however, there was hardly any conflict between ethnic Russians and ethnic Ukrainians, at least not until Russian forces took over the peninsula in March 2014.
Both Abkhazia and South Ossetia remained in limbo for nearly two decades after the initial conflict with central government in Tbilisi. Russia did not recognize these republics until going to war with Georgia in 2008. Since the West is actively involved in resolving the Crimean crisis, Russia will probably not have the luxury of waiting for two decades to decide the fate of the peninsula and wait until the area is completely in decay. Instead, Moscow is likely to proceed quickly with its economic rehabilitation.
Apart from the Western presence, Moscow’s decision is also affected by ethnic considerations. While in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russia dealt with ethnic non-Russians, in Crimea ethnic Russians are involved, so the domestic pressures of Russian nationalism on the government in Moscow will have a much higher impact on the Russian government’s decisions in Crimea, than in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. While Moscow will try to showcase Crimea as economically more successful place than the rest of Ukraine, Abkhazia and South Ossetia are likely to be relegated to the roles of militarized enclaves that are pointed against NATO in Georgia with little concern for their economic wellbeing.
CONCLUSIONS: Russia's annexation of Crimea could have a domino effect elsewhere in the former Soviet countries. In particular, this applies to the Georgian breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Their limited and illusory political independence could be scrapped and they may officially become part of Russia, therefore further deepening the crisis in the South Caucasus and in relations between Russia and the West. The creation of another semi-recognized territory and a change of official borders signifies a crisis in the post-Soviet world that threatens to develop further, undermining the existing status-quo in variety of ways.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Valeriy Dzutsev is a Senior Non-Resident Fellow at Jamestown Foundation and Doctoral Student in Political Science at Arizona State University.