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Registration date : 2007-01-11

PostSubject: Separatist Georgian   Tue Mar 27, 2007 4:41 am

A referendum on independence in South Ossetia on Sunday is taking place in a tiny territory, with a population of less than 100,000 people.

map
Its result will not be recognised by the international community but it could have wide international significance.

The unresolved conflicts between Georgia and its breakaway regions of South Ossetia and the Black Sea region of Abkhazia lie at the heart of the current high-temperature dispute between Tbilisi and Moscow.

Both territories have lived outside Georgian jurisdiction for more than a decade, since fighting in 1990-2 and 1992-3 respectively.

Although their bids to be independent are still unheeded in the wider world, the fortunes of both places have improved in the last few years - much to the anger of Georgia.

Georgian hopes

Under President Vladimir Putin, Russia has begun actively helping both regions, allowing their residents to hold Russian passports and receive Russian pensions.


Mr Saakashvili in the Kodori gorge
Mr Saakashvili has moved Georgia's Abkhaz "government-in-exile" to the Kodori gorge

Regions and territories: Abkhazia
Tens of thousands of Russian tourists now visit the coastal resorts of Abkhazia every summer and South Ossetia is tightly linked to its ethnic neighbour on the Russian side of the Caucasus mountains, North Ossetia.

At the same time, Georgia's 38-year-old President Mikheil Saakashvili is trying, unsuccessfully, to alter the terms of the ceasefire agreements that ended the two conflicts and replace the Russian peacekeepers on the ground with a more international force.

Mr Saakashvili has promised to "restore Georgia's territorial integrity" and reintegrate the two territories by the time his presidential term finishes at the end of 2008.

Many of the quarter of a million or so Georgians who fled Abkhazia in 1992-3 are hoping that he will keep his promise.

Kosovo effect

So far, the Georgian president's attempts to win back the two territories have only pushed them further away.


After Kosovo's independence there will be a chain reaction
Russian parliamentarian Sergei Baburin
A brief upsurge of fighting in 2004 after Tbilisi launched an "anti-smuggling operation" in South Ossetia set back that peace process, and the two sides have not had substantive talks since then.

This summer, Mr Saakashvili moved his Abkhazian "government-in-exile" into a mountainous valley in Abkhazia and renamed it "Upper Abkhazia". This angered the Abkhaz and drew accusations that Georgia had broken the terms of the 1994 ceasefire agreement.

To add spice to this already swirling cauldron, everyone in the Caucasus is closely watching to see the outcome of the United Nations-sponsored talks on the future of Kosovo.

It now seems likely that the UN will recommend in the next few months that Kosovo be granted independence against the will of Belgrade, thus unilaterally breaking up Serbia's territorial integrity.

Abkhaz, Ossetians and Russians say if this happens that it will set an important precedent.

Georgia and its Western allies are arguing, with diminishing success, that Kosovo is a unique case.

This is the background to South Ossetia's referendum, being held in parallel with a presidential poll.

Recognition strategy

No-one doubts what will be the result of the two votes: South Ossetia's current leader Eduard Kokoity will easily win re-election and the South Ossetians will vote for independence.


SOUTH OSSETIA
Map of South Ossetia
Population: About 70,000
Capital: Tskhinvali
Major languages: Ossetian, Georgian, Russian
Major religion: Orthodox Christianity
Currency: Russian rouble, Georgian lari

Regions and territories: South Ossetia
What is Mr Kokoity's strategy? He has faced criticism at home, on the grounds that South Ossetia already held an independence referendum in January 1992 and that a new vote will devalue the old one.

He apparently believes that a positive vote could trigger what he most desires - recognition by the Russian Federation, possibly after the Kosovo decision is announced.

Abkhazia is following the same track: it voted on 18 October to ask the Russian parliament "to legitimise the de facto independence of Abkhazia." (Abkhazia voted for independence in an internationally unrecognised referendum in 1999).

And while the Russian foreign ministry is so far diplomatically silent on the issue, some Russian parliamentarians are already beating the drum.

Following the appeal by the Abkhaz parliament, Sergei Baburin, the deputy speaker of Russia's State Duma, said: "After Kosovo's independence there will be a chain reaction, but there is no need to wait for Kosovo independence and we should immediately establish diplomatic relations with Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transdnestria [the breakaway region of Moldova]."

A move like this would shake up the Caucasus in ways that no-one can fully predict.
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