Updated: Aug 28, 2019
By: Kirsten King
Despite having lived for the last century in a mosaic of ethnic diversity with high rates of intermarriage, the breakaway post-Soviet state of South Ossetia in the Southern Caucasus is a land now divided by tensions between the historical migrants of the region, the Ossetians, and citizens of the country it is internationally recognized as a part of, Georgia.
After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1992, South Ossetia declared independence and operated somewhat autonomously from Georgia for over a decade.
In 2008, tensions in South Ossetia and another breakaway state, Abkhazia, erupted into a brief but bloody war between Georgia and separatist forces backed by the Russian military. A tentative peace was enacted after five days of bitter fighting. Some 20,000 ethnic Georgians who were displaced during the fighting have not been allowed to return to their homes.
The Kremlin remains deeply entrenched in the political climate of South Ossetia. Despite Moscow’s granting of 8.5 billion rubles to rebuild infrastructure and reinvigorate the economy after the 2008 war, this mountainous state’s population and economy has continued to be negatively affected.
History of South Ossetia
South Ossetia is located in the Southern Caucasus region, an area also referred to as Transcaucasia which has been an important region for centuries as a melting pot of Eastern and Western cultures. This mountainous borderland between Eastern Europe and Western Asia has been under the control of numerous warring tribes and empires since ancient times, each influencing the region greatly with their religions, languages, and customs.
The Ossetians trace their lineage to the Iranian Alans who ruled the medieval kingdom of Alania in the North Caucasus, which included the area of Russia now known as North Ossetia. In the 1200’s, Alania was destroyed by Mongol and Timur armies, eventually driving the Alans south where they conquered the Georgian city of Gori in 1299. They were pushed back over the mountains by Georgian King George V in 1320.
A point of contention amidst the current ethnic conflict was when exactly the Ossetians took up residence in the Southern Caucasus. Some South Ossetians claim that Ossetians had been there since the 13th century after the Mongol invasion, others agree that mass migration didn’t occur until the 17th century when Ossetian peasants settled in what is today South Ossetia, what was then the Georgian Kingdom of Kartli-Kakheti. This area was annexed by the Russian Empire in 1801 but returned to the Democratic Republic of Georgia following the Russian Revolution in 1918.
The Ossetians were landless peasants in Georgia and highly influenced by Bolshevism. After participating in a series of uprisings against Georgian aristocrats between 1918 and 1920, the Ossetians were granted their own area, the South Ossetian AO (autonomous oblast) within the newly established Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic which was created when the Red Army invaded and took control of Georgia in 1921. Its counterpart, the North Ossetian AO was created three years later.
The South Ossetian AO’s borders had not existed previously, and as such, there were ethnic complications. Tskhinvali was designated as the new South Ossetian capital even though the majority of the population were Georgian and despite significant pushback, many Georgian villages were enveloped into South Ossetia. In 1989, more Ossetians lived in Georgia than in the South Ossetian AO. Ossetian was taught in schools but Georgian and Russian remained the official administrative languages.
Despite of lines drawn by the Soviet Union, there had been no conflict between the Ossetians and the Georgians since the final uprising in 1920. However, during the period of perestroika in 1989, Ossetian nationalism was on the rise with calls to create an independent South Ossetian ASSR (Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic). Instead, a crushing blow was dealt when the Georgian government declared independence from the Soviet Union and abolished the autonomous South Ossetian state altogether. This series of events led to the 1991-92 South Ossetia War (also known as the First South Ossetian War).
Conflict in South Ossetia
The number of armed militias in South Ossetia in the early 90’s had begun to swell thanks to the influx of volunteers from North Ossetia and others in the Northern Caucasus armed with former Soviet weapons. Fighting began when Georgian police entered Tskhinvali in January 1991 to disarm the militias, resulting in a division of the city into two parts controlled by each conflicting side. The fighting intensified in 1992 as war broke out in Abkhazia, another breakaway region formerly part of the Soviet Union.
The Georgian government imposed a blockade by disconnecting power to South Ossetia and an estimated 100,000 South Ossetians were forced to seek refuge in North Ossetia. Conversely, 23,000 Georgians who lived in South Ossetia fled to Georgia. The war was brought to an end following a Russia-brokered ceasefire in on June 24, 1992, dividing South Ossetia into Russian and Georgian controlled parts, and a joint peacekeeping force was installed.
Tensions had resurfaced in the early 2000’s following the election of Vladimir Putin and Georgia’s increasingly favorable ties to the West. On August 1, 2008, an explosive device hit a Georgian police lorry which the Georgians believe was planted by South Ossetian forces and Georgian snipers responded against South Ossetian positions. South Ossetian forces then began shelling Georgian villages in violation of the 1992 ceasefire resulting in more armed responses.
Russia retaliated in full force taking the fight into Georgia and attacking and subsequently occupying strategic Georgian cities like Gori and the important seaport of Poti. Both sides engaged in a propaganda war with Russia launching cyber-attacks attacking important Georgian websites and servers.
A ceasefire agreement was reached on August 12, bringing an end to the five days of fighting. South Ossetia and Abkhazia were formally recognized as independent nations on August 26 by Russia but remain unrecognized by most other foreign nations.
Since the war, Georgia has claimed that Russian meddling in South Ossetia has undermined the tentative peace.
Allegations of redrawing of border lines and interference in a contentious election in 2011 where the opponent of the Moscow-backed candidate fell victim to police brutality has foreshadowed a difficult road ahead to a peaceful coexistence for South Ossetia and Georgia. As recently as June 2019, Georgian protesters have stormed the parliament in Tbilisi as a result of the presence of a Russian lawmaker.
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