MOSCOW (Reuters) - The breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia said it plans a Crimean-style referendum on joining Russia, drawing a furious riposte from Tbilisi over a move that risks inflaming the Kremlin’s already frayed relations with the West.
Leonid Tibilov, president of the self-declared republic of South Ossetia, said he had laid out the plans during a meeting with Vladislav Surkov, one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s closest advisers, on Monday.
“Today’s political reality is such that we must make our historic choice and be reunited with brotherly Russia so that we can ensure the security and success of our republic and people for many centuries,” Tibilov said, according to a statement released by his office after the meeting.
“The referendum, the positive outcome of which I have no doubt, will allow us to unite our people,” he said. Tibilov did not name a date for the referendum and said a decision about how to proceed after the vote would be agreed with the Kremlin.
Georgia and Russia fought a short war over South Ossetia and another separatist region, Abkhazia, in 2008. After it ended, Moscow, whose forces triumphed, recognized both regions as independent countries, though most other nations have not.
South Ossetia’s initiative comes at a time when Russia’s ties with the West remain strained over the Ukraine crisis and the Kremlin’s decision to launch an air campaign in Syria to help President Bashar al-Assad against insurgents fighting him.
It follows a similar initiative from authorities in the Ukrainian autonomous republic of Crimea to hold a referendum on joining Russia last year, after Moscow seized the peninsula in a largely bloodless military operation following the fall of Ukraine’s pro-Moscow president to a popular uprising.
Official results after that vote showed overwhelming support among Crimeans to join Russia. The West declared the referendum illegal and still regards Crimea as part of Ukraine.
The Georgian government condemned South Ossetia’s plan and said it would alert its international partners to an initiative it described as running counter to international law.
“It just confirms the provocative policy which Russia is pursuing on South Ossetia. It is a continuation of Russia’s policy of ‘creeping occupation’,” Gigi Gigiadze, the country’s deputy foreign minister, told reporters.
South Ossetia, a largely agricultural region of some 50,000 people, is already heavily integrated into Russia. It uses the Russian rouble, hosts a Russian military base and draws most of its budget from Moscow.
Russia and South Ossetia signed a deal earlier this year to integrate their security forces and military, angering Georgia which regards the region and Abkhazia as territory occupied by a foreign power.
When asked how Russia would respond to South Ossetia’s referendum plans, Putin’s spokesman said the Kremlin was aware of the region’s desire for closer integration.
“It has long been known that there are many supporters of integration with Russia in South Ossetia,” the spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters, declining to set out in detail how Moscow would react to such a vote.
“South Ossetia is an independent government recognized by the Russian Federation with whom we have diplomatic ties.”
Additional reporting by Lidia Kelly in MOSCOW and Margarita Antidze in TBILISI.; Editing by Mark Heinrich