It was a piece of surreal political theatre of the sort that have become increasingly popular with the choreographers of the Kremlin. On Tuesday (24 May ) the liliputian self-declared Republic of South Ossetia, a de facto Russian protectorate, got a new president.
Alan Gagloev was sworn-in at the theatre on Tskhinvali's main square. The choreography was perfect: a military guard of honour, a swearing in ceremony, and delegations of "foreign countries", except that apart from Russia itself and Nicaragua, they represented other self declared entities such as Abkhazia, Lugansk, Donetsk, Nagorno-Karabakh etc.
Most of the world still recognise South Ossetia as part of Georgia, but since 2008 the territory lives under the protection of Russian troops and at the mercy of Russia's largesse.
Gagloev came to power unexpectedly, having defeated the incumbent Anatoly Bibilov in elections on May 17. The number of people who voted for him was 16,134 (representing 56.09% of the electorate).
Bibilov left his successor a time bomb, due to go off on 17 July, in the form of a referendum calling for South Ossetia's unification with Russia. One may think that Russia has enough on its plate at the moment, and may not want to irritate the international community further with unnecessary provocations in the South Caucasus. But Gagloev can only complain that the time is not right. Most people in Tskhinvali seem to think that South Ossetia-Russia unification is a good idea.
Gagloev made no reference to the referendum in his inauguration speech today, but he did heap praise on Russia and promised eternal friendship.
At 41 Gagloev is the youngest leader to lead South Ossetia, but his message appeared old and rusty.
Alan Gagloev told the gathering at his inauguration:
“The most acute geopolitical situation is developing in the world now. This is the moment of the armed clash between good and evil. We believe that the steps taken by our strategic partner, the Russian Federation, are fully consistent with the threat to national security looming over the countries that are part of the “Russian World” orbit. Today and always South Ossetia will be true to its allied duty. We will never forget that it was Russia that came to the aid of South Ossetia in the hour of death and protected the Ossetian people from destruction,” said Gagloev.
According to him, relations of alliance and integration with Russia are the main vector in the international policy of South Ossetia.
“Undoubtedly, the priority direction of our work will be the deepening and development of close ties with fraternal North Ossetia. We also intend to further deepen our relations with all friendly countries whose representatives are present at the solemn ceremony", he said.
The Kremlin appears to be throwing cold water on the prospect of unification with South Ossetia. Russia does not take and has not taken any steps related to the referendum being discussed in South Ossetia, there are certain legal inconsistencies in this issue, according to Dmitry Peskov, press secretary of the President of the Russian Federation.
"If we take this seriously, then legally we still need to finalize this issue. Because, if we understand correctly, the issue for the referendum is legally formulated as the unification of the Republic of South Ossetia and Russia, that is, legally this is such a kind of incident," Peskov said. journalists, answering the question of how the Kremlin treats the initiative of South Ossetia's referendum.
He explained that if the question is posed as a "unification", then we are talking about the creation of a third state. "Which, of course, is impossible. Therefore, of course, we need to think legally about the wording. I have already spoken on this topic and I repeat once again that no steps have been taken or planned by the Russian side in this case," he said. Peskov.
And so in Lilliput of the South Caucasus this evening, they will raise a toast to the time when Russia decides it needs to unify with South Ossetia and a new state of Russia and South Ossetia comes into being. Tomorrow the people of South Ossetia will however wake up to the reality of hard social conditions and uncertainty. Young Ossetians have been recruited by Russia to fight in Ukraine, and their families worry about their future too.
But for Moscow South Ossetia remains important because it is one, rather small proof, that the idea of an expanded Russia with satellites around it is not just a Putin dream but also a reality. Having the inauguration Gagloev in a theatre was therefore very appropriate.
photo: Alan Gagloev being sworn in as president of South Ossetia on 24 May 2022 (picture courtesy of RES news agency, Tskhinvali).