The leader of Georgia’s breakaway region of South Ossetia set July 17 as a date for a referendum on joining Russia.
“Anatoly Bibilov signed a decree on holding a referendum in the Republic of South Ossetia,” his office said in a statement, citing his people’s “historic aspiration” to join Russia.
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South Ossetia was at the centre of the Russian-Georgian war in 2008 territory, along with another separatist region, Abkhazia.
After the war, Russia and a handful of other countries recognised South Ossetia as an independent state, but most of the world still considers it to be part of Georgia.
“We did it!” South Ossetian leader Anatoly Bibilov wrote on Telegram on Friday, announcing he signed a decree setting the referendum for July 17.
“In legalese, we fulfilled yet another important legal requirement. And in normal language, we took a life-changing step – we are going home, we are going to Russia. The time has come to unite once and for all … South Ossetia and Russia will be together. This is the start of a big new story.”
Bibilov lost his bid for re-election earlier this month. Russia has expressed hope the incoming leader, Alan Gagloev, will preserve “continuity” in ties with Moscow.
The announcement came on the 79th day of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with thousands killed and more than six million people fleeing the pro-Western country.
Ukraine’s separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk have also expressed interest in joining Russia. The full-scale offensive on Ukraine has sparked an outpouring of solidarity in Georgia.
Georgia has previously denounced as “unacceptable” plans by South Ossetia to hold a referendum on joining Russia.
In August 2008, Russia launched an assault against Georgia which was battling pro-Russian fighters in South Ossetia, after they shelled Georgian villages.
The fighting ended five days later with a European Union-mediated ceasefire but claimed more than 700 lives and displaced tens of thousands of ethnic Georgians.
The referendum roughly follows the pattern of Crimea. After Russia seized the Black Sea peninsula from Ukraine in 2014, a referendum was held on joining Russia and 97 percent were said to have voted in favour.
The referendum was held while Crimea was under the control of Russian troops and the result was not recognised by most countries. Russia then annexed Crimea.