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Where is South Ossetia, and why does it want to join Russia?

Dmitry Medoev, the foreign minister of South Ossetia, next to the rostrum honoring the Georgian breakaway region’s independence. (Ksenia Ivanova for The Washington Post)
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Russia’s war in Ukraine has rattled Europe, revived the NATO military alliance and helped rekindle conflicts from the post-Soviet era, including in places such as Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed territory at the center of tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

It has also stirred pro-Russian sentiment in South Ossetia, a breakaway region in Georgia whose independence Moscow recognized in 2008. South Ossetian President Anatoly Bibilov announced Friday that the separatist state would hold a referendum on joining Russia on July 17.

Here’s what you need to know about South Ossetia, its ambitions to become a part of Russia and how the conflict relates to the war in Ukraine.

What is South Ossetia?

South Ossetia is a small Russian-backed breakaway region inside the internationally recognized borders of Georgia. Moscow recognized South Ossetia as an independent state, along with Abkhazia, also in Georgia, following the brief Georgia-Russia war of 2008. Since then, it has provided the region with financial support, stationed troops in its territory and offered Russian citizenship and other benefits to its roughly 55,000 residents.

Georgia has lost de facto control of these regions. But not many countries aside from a few Russian allies — such as Venezuela, Nicaragua and Syria — and three small Pacific Ocean island states have recognized South Ossetia as an independent state.

Over the years, South Ossetia and Moscow have become closer, signing multiple treaties of cooperation.

“Since 2008, when the war happened, Russia has become pretty much the only power controlling and backing South Ossetia, and the region has been cut off from Tbilisi, from mainland Georgia,” said Maia Otarashvili, research fellow and deputy director of research at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

What has South Ossetia said about joining Russia?

Bibilov said Thursday that South Ossetia will take legal steps to join the Russian Federation “in the near future,” according to comments published by the United Russia party press service and carried by Russian news agency Tass.

“I believe that unification with Russia is our strategic goal. This is our way and an aspiration of our people. We should move forward along this path,” he said. “The corresponding legal steps will be made in the near future. The Republic of South Ossetia will become part of its historical motherland — Russia.”

South Ossetia has previously said that it wants to join Russia, only to be shut down by Moscow.

“I think there are a couple of reasons for that,” Otarashvili said. “One, Moscow is already de facto in charge of South Ossetia and overseeing all aspects of it. And two, an annexation … a big, formal annexation, would be yet another move that Moscow would make that would be frowned upon by the West.”

This time, the Kremlin also played down South Ossetia’s suggestion. “We have not taken legal or any other measures,” Dmitry Peskov, a Kremlin spokesman, said to journalists Thursday, according to Reuters. “This concerns the choice of the South Ossetian people, which we respect.”

On Friday, Bibilov published a note on his website that said the referendum would be held on July 17.

How has Georgia reacted?

Georgia’s foreign minister and deputy prime minister, David Zalkaliani, said Thursday that “speculations about any referendum” in South Ossetia about the possibility of joining the Russian Federation “are unacceptable,” according to Tass.

Ukraine offers neutrality in talks with Russia. What does that mean?

What does this have to do with Ukraine?

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has brought back painful memories for Georgians who experienced the 2008 war. Since the conflict in Ukraine started on Feb. 24, Georgia’s government has been careful not to provoke Russia.

Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili said on Feb. 25 that the country would not join its Western allies in imposing economic sanctions against Russia. Georgia also allegedly blocked volunteer fighters from traveling to Ukraine.

When Georgia’s president, Salome Zurabishvili, traveled to Brussels and Paris in early March to express support for Ukraine, the country’s governing party said that her trip was out of bounds and that it planned to sue her.

“Everyday Georgians are extremely supportive of Ukraine. And many of them are even fighting in Ukraine right now as volunteers, so the government and the people are extremely diverging on Ukraine,” Otarashvili said.

The current government in Georgia came to power in 2012 and has been known for its “extreme appeasement strategy with Russia,” Otarashvili added. “There’s been a lot of opening between Russia and Georgia, and the current government has worked very hard to not provoke Russia.”

On the other hand, South Ossetia’s leader has further aligned himself with Russia, saying on Telegram on March 26 that the region was sending troops to fight on the Russian side to “help protect Russia,” Agence France-Presse reported.

Bibilov has supported Russia’s aggression in Ukraine.

“The Russian world today is defending the interests of its adherents, those who are opposed to Nazism, who respect universal humanitarian values and the fundamental rights and norms shared by the entire international community,” he said Thursday, Tass reported.

Russian President Vladimir Putin initially sought to justify the invasion by saying his troops planned to ‘denazify’ the country, a claim that experts say is part of the Kremlin’s disinformation campaign surrounding the war.

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