Georgia on Thursday condemned “unacceptable” plans announced by pro-Moscow separatists in the South Ossetia region to hold a referendum on joining Russia.
South Ossetia was at the center of the 2008 Russo-Georgian War after which the Kremlin recognized the region – along with another separatist region, Abkhazia – as an independent state and deployed military bases there.
On Wednesday, South Ossetian separatist leader Anatoly Bibilov said the statelet would hold a referendum on joining Russia immediately after the April 10 “presidential election”.
Georgian Foreign Minister David Zalkaliani said on Thursday that “talking about any referendum is unacceptable while the region is occupied by Russia.”
“Such a referendum would have no legal force,” he told reporters. “The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that Georgian territory is occupied by Russia.”
Also on Thursday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Moscow had not taken any “legal” steps on the matter.
“But at the same time, we are talking about expressing our opinion about the people of South Oseta and we respect that,” Peskov told reporters.
Bibilov’s spokeswoman Dina Gusieva told Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency on Thursday that the decision to hold the referendum was “linked to a window of opportunity open in the current situation”, referring to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Last week, Bibilov said South Ossetia had sent troops to fight alongside invading Russian troops in Ukraine, where thousands were killed and more than 10 million displaced.
In August 2008, Russia launched an offensive against Georgia, which was battling pro-Russian militias in South Ossetia, when they shelled Georgian villages.
Fighting ended after five days with an EU-mediated ceasefire, but more than 700 people lost their lives and thousands of ethnic Georgians were displaced.