A referendum on joining the Russian Federation is to be held on July 17 in Georgia’s separatist region of South Ossetia. The region’s president, Anatoly Bibilov, signed a corresponding decree on Friday, his office said.

By scheduling the referendum, he was responding to the “historic aspirations” of the people in South Ossetia, Bibilov said, according to his office.

In the messenger service Telegram, the South Ossetian president later wrote with a view to a possible accession to the Russian Federation: “We are coming home.” Now the “time has come to unite us once and for all”. A merger of South Ossetia and Russia is “the beginning of a great new history”.

However, Bibilow is about to be replaced as president. Russia has already expressed hope that his designated successor, Alan Gagloev, will ensure “continuity” in relations with Moscow.

Bibilow had already spoken about the planned referendum on Russian television at the end of March. The Georgian government had condemned the project as “unacceptable”.

After a brief military conflict with Georgia in August 2008, Russia officially recognized the independence of the pro-Russian separatist region and neighboring Abkhazia. Since then, Russian forces have been permanently stationed there.

Bibilov’s announcement came against the background of the Russian military operation in Ukraine. Russia started this on February 24 after recognizing the local pro-Russian “People’s Republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent.