South Ossetia Overview
South Ossetia, internationally recognized as part of Georgia, is separated from Russia's North Ossetia region by a border running high in the Caucasus Mountains. Much of the region lies more than 1,000 metres above sea level.
A source of tension since the break-up of the Soviet Union, South Ossetia hosted a brief war between Russia and Georgia in 2008.
Moscow subsequently recognised South Ossetia as an independent state, and began a process of closer ties that Georgia views as effective annexation.
South Ossetia is inhabited mostly by Ossetians, who speak a language distantly related to Persian. Most ethnic Georgians have been displaced from the region by the two conflicts.
They had accounted for about a third of the population prior to the fall of the Soviet Union.
It has a population of 53,000 people who live in an area of 3,900 km2, south of the Russian Caucasus, with 30,000 living in Tskhinvali. The separatist polity, Republic of South Ossetia (or the State of Alania), is recognized as a state by Russia, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Nauru, and Syria.
While Georgia lacks control over South Ossetia, the Georgian government and most members of the United Nations consider the territory part of Georgia, whose constitution designates the area as "the former autonomous district of South Ossetia", in reference to the former Soviet autonomous oblast disbanded in 1990.
Georgia does not recognize the existence of South Ossetia as a political entity, and therefore its territory does not correspond to any Georgian administrative area (although Provisional Administrative Entity of South Ossetia was created by the Georgian authorities as a transitional measure leading to the settlement of South Ossetia's status), with most of the territory included into Shida Kartli region. The area is often informally referred to as the legally undefined Tskhinvali Region in Georgia and in international organisations when neutrality is deemed necessary.
South Ossetia declared independence from the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1991. The Georgian government responded by abolishing South Ossetia's autonomy and trying to re-establish its control over the region by force.The crisis escalation led to the 1991–92 South Ossetia War.
Georgian fighting against those controlling South Ossetia occurred on two other occasions, in 2004 and 2008.The latter conflict led to the Russo–Georgian War, during which Ossetian and Russian forces gained full de facto control of the territory of the former South Ossetian Autonomous Oblast. In the wake of the 2008 war, Georgia and a significant part of the international community consider South Ossetia to be occupied by the Russian military.
South Ossetia relies heavily on military, political and financial aid from Russia. South Ossetia, Transnistria, Artsakh, and Abkhazia are sometimes referred to as post-Soviet "frozen conflict" zones.
Russian Conquest of South Ossetia
The Ossetians are believed to be descended from Iranian tribes which migrated into the area many hundreds of years ago and settled in what is now North Ossetia.
As the Russian empire expanded into the area in the 18th and 19th centuries, the Ossetians did not join other peoples of the North Caucasus in putting up fierce resistance.
They sided with the Bolshevik forces that occupied Georgia in the early 1920s and, as part of the carve-up which followed, the South Ossetian Autonomous Region was created in Georgia, and North Ossetia was formed in Russia.
Separatism in South Ossetia
In the twilight of the Soviet Union, when nationalist leader Zviad Gamsakhurdia came to power in Georgia, separatist sentiment burgeoned in South Ossetia.
After several outbreaks of violence, the region declared its intention to secede from Georgia in 1990, and in 1992 proclaimed independence.
Sporadic violence involving Georgian irregular forces and Ossetian fighters continued until the summer of 1992 when agreement on the deployment of Georgian, Ossetian and Russian peacekeepers was reached.
Political stalemate followed. Separatist voices became less strident during President Shevardnadze's rule in Georgia, but the issues returned to the foreground when Mikheil Saakashvili replaced him.
Making clear his intention to bring South Ossetia and another breakaway region Abkhazia to heel, Mr Saakashvili offered them autonomy. South Ossetians overwhelmingly rejected the overture in a 2006 referendum.
Tensions came to head in early August 2008, when, after nearly a week of clashes between Georgian troops and separatist forces, Georgia launched a concerted air and ground assault attack on South Ossetia's main city, Tskhinvali.
Within days, Russian forces swept the Georgians out of both South Ossetia and Abkhazia, briefly pursuing them into Georgia proper.
Russia formally recognised both South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states after the war, followed by its Latin-American allies Venezuela and Nicaragua and a few Pacific island states.
In April 2009, Russia bolstered its position in South Ossetia by signing a five-year agreement to take formal control of its frontiers with Georgia proper, as well as those of Abkhazia.
In 2015 Russia started to put more pressure on Georgia over South Ossetia. It signed an "alliance and integration agreement" with South Ossetia that abolished border checkpoints.
Georgia viewed this as a closer step towards Russian annexation of the region, and expressed further concern when Russian forces pushed the border fence 1.5 km further into Georgia proper - a short distance from the country's main west-east highway.
South Ossetia as a part of the Soviet Union
Following the Russian revolution, the area of modern South Ossetia became part of the Democratic Republic of Georgia. In 1918, conflict began between the landless Ossetian peasants living in Shida Kartli (Interior Georgia), who were influenced by Bolshevism and demanded ownership of the lands they worked, and the Menshevik government backed ethnic Georgian aristocrats, who were legal owners.
Although the Ossetians were initially discontented with the economic policies of the central government, the tension soon transformed into ethnic conflict. The first Ossetian rebellion began in February 1918, when three Georgian princes were killed and their land was seized by the Ossetians. The central government of Tbilisi retaliated by sending the National Guard to the area.
However, the Georgian unit retreated after they had engaged the Ossetians. Ossetian rebels then proceeded to occupy the town of Tskhinvali and began attacking the ethnic Georgian civilian population. During uprisings in 1919 and 1920, the Ossetians were covertly supported by Soviet Russia, but even so, were defeated. According to allegations made by Ossetian sources, the crushing of the 1920 uprising caused the death of 5,000 Ossetians, while ensuing hunger and epidemics were the causes of death of more than 13,000 people.
The Soviet Georgian government, established after the Red Army invasion of Georgia in 1921, created an autonomous administrative unit for Transcaucasian Ossetians in April 1922 under pressure from Kavbiuro (the Caucasian Bureau of the Central Committee of the Russian Communist Party), called the South Ossetian Autonomous Oblast (AO).
Some believe that the Bolsheviks granted this autonomy to the Ossetians in exchange for their help in fighting the Democratic Republic of Georgia and favoring local separatists, since this area had never been a separate entity prior to the Russian invasion.
The drawing of administrative boundaries of the South Ossetian AO was quite a complicated process. Many Georgian villages were included within the South Ossetian AO despite numerous protests by the Georgian population. While the city of Tskhinvali did not have a majority Ossetian population, it was made the capital of the South Ossetian AO.
In addition to parts of Gori Uyezd and Dusheti Uyezd of Tiflis Governorate, parts of Racha Uyezd of Kutaisi Governorate (western Georgia) were also included within the South Ossetian AO. All these territories historically had been indigenous Georgian lands.
Historical Ossetia in the North Caucasus did not have its own political entity before 1924, when the North Ossetian Autonomous Oblast was created.
Although the Ossetians had their own language (Ossetian), Russian and Georgian were administrative/state languages. Under the rule of Georgia's government during Soviet times, Ossetians enjoyed minority cultural autonomy, including speaking the Ossetian language and teaching it in schools.
In 1989, two-thirds of Ossetians in the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic lived outside the South Ossetian AO.
Tensions in the region began to rise amid rising nationalism among both Georgians and Ossetians in 1989. Before this, the two communities of the South Ossetian Autonomous Oblast of the Georgian SSR had been living in peace with each other except for the 1918–1920 events.
Both ethnicities have had a high level of interaction and high rates of intermarriage. Dispute surrounding the presence of the Ossetian people in the South Caucasus has been one of the causes of conflict. Although Georgian historiography believes that Ossetian mass migration to the South Caucasus (Georgia) began in the 17th century, Ossetians claim to have been residing in the area since ancient times and that present-day South Ossetia is their historical homeland.
No evidence exists to back up the Ossetian claims of being indigenous to South Ossetia. Some Ossetian historians accept that the migration of Ossetian ancestors to modern South Ossetia began after the Mongol invasions of the 13th century, while one South Ossetian de facto foreign minister in the 1990s admitted that the Ossetians first appeared in the area only in the early 17th century.
Since it was created after the Russian invasion of 1921, South Ossetia was regarded as artificial creation by Georgians during the Soviet era.
The South Ossetian Popular Front (Ademon Nykhas) was created in 1988. On 10 November 1989, the South Ossetian regional council asked the Georgian Supreme Council to upgrade the region to the status of an "autonomous republic".
The decision to transform the South Ossetian AO into the South Ossetian ASSR by the South Ossetian authorities escalated the conflict. On 11 November, this decision was revoked by the Georgian parliament. The Georgian authorities removed the First Party Secretary of the oblast from his position.
The Georgian Supreme Council adopted a law barring regional parties in summer 1990. Since this was interpreted by South Ossetians as a move against Ademon Nykhas, they declared full sovereignty as part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) on 20 September 1990. Ossetians boycotted subsequent Georgian parliamentary elections and held their own contest in December.
In October 1990, the parliamentary election in Georgia was won by Zviad Gamsakhurdia's "Round Table" block. On 11 December 1990, Zviad Gamsakhurdia's government declared the Ossetian election illegitimate and abolished South Ossetia's autonomous status altogether. Gamsakhurdia rationalized the abolition of Ossetian autonomy by saying, "They [Ossetians] have no right to a state here in Georgia. They are a national minority. Their homeland is North Ossetia.... Here they are newcomers."
When the Georgian parliament declared a state of emergency in the territory of South Ossetian AO on 12 December 1990, troops from both Georgian and Russian interior ministries were sent to the region. After the Georgian National Guard was formed in early 1991, Georgian troops entered Tskhinvali on 5 January 1991.
The 1991–92 South Ossetia War was characterised by general disregard for international humanitarian law by uncontrollable militias, with both sides reporting atrocities. The Soviet military facilitated a ceasefire as ordered by Mikhail Gorbachev in January 1991, later they were participating in the conflict on the Ossetian side.
In March and April 1991, Soviet interior troops were reported actively disarming militias on both sides, and deterring the inter-ethnic violence. Zviad Gamsakhurdia asserted that the Soviet leadership was encouraging South Ossetian separatism in order to force Georgia not to leave the Soviet Union. Georgia declared its independence in April 1991.
As a result of the war, about 100,000 ethnic Ossetians fled the territory and Georgia proper, most across the border into North Ossetia. A further 23,000 ethnic Georgians fled South Ossetia to other parts of Georgia. Many South Ossetians were resettled in uninhabited areas of North Ossetia from which the Ingush had been expelled by Stalin in 1944, leading to conflicts between Ossetians and Ingush over the right of residence in former Ingush territory.
On 29 April 1991, the western part of South Ossetia was affected by an earthquake, which killed 200 and left 300 families homeless.
In late 1991, dissent was mounting against Gamsakhurdia in Georgia due to his intolerance of critics and attempts to concentrate political power.
On 22 December 1991, after a coup d'état, Gamsakhurdia and his supporters were besieged by the opposition, which was backed by the national guard, in several government buildings in Tbilisi. The ensuing heavy fighting resulted in over 200 casualties and left the center of the Georgian capital in ruins.
On 6 January, Gamsakhurdia and several of his supporters fled the city for exile. Afterwards, the Georgian military council, an interim government, was formed by a triumvirate of Jaba Ioseliani, Tengiz Kitovani and Tengiz Sigua, and, in March 1992, they invited Eduard Shevardnadze, a former Soviet minister, to come to Georgia to assume control of the Georgian State Council.
On 24 June 1992, Shevardnadze and the South Ossetian government signed the Sochi ceasefire agreement, brokered by Russia. The agreement included obligations to avoid the use of force, and Georgia pledged not to impose sanctions against South Ossetia. The Georgian government retained control over substantial portions of South Ossetia, including the town of Akhalgori.
A Joined Peacekeeping force of Ossetians, Russians and Georgians was established. On 6 November 1992, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe(OSCE) set up a mission in Georgia to monitor the peacekeeping operation. From then until mid-2004, South Ossetia was generally peaceful.
Following the 2003 Rose Revolution, Mikheil Saakashvili became the President of Georgia in 2004. Ahead of the 2004 parliamentary and presidential elections, he promised to restore the territorial integrity of Georgia. During one of his early speeches, Saakashvili addressed the separatist regions, saying, "[N]either Georgia nor its president will put up with disintegration of Georgia. Therefore, we offer immediate negotiations to our Abkhazian and Ossetian friends.
We are ready to discuss every model of statehood by taking into consideration their interests for the promotion of their future development."
Since 2004, tensions began to rise as the Georgian authorities strengthened their efforts to bring the region back under their rule. Georgia sent police to close down a black market, which was one of the region's chief sources of revenue, selling foodstuffs and fuel smuggled from Russia.
This was followed by fighting by Georgian troops and peacekeepers against South Ossetian militiamen and freelance fighters from Russia. Hostage takings, shootouts and occasional bombings left dozens dead and wounded. A ceasefire deal was reached on 13 August though it was repeatedly violated.
The Georgian government protested against the allegedly increasing Russian economic and political presence in the region and against the uncontrolled military of the South Ossetian side. It also considered the peacekeeping force (consisting in equal parts of South Ossetians, North Ossetians, Russians and Georgians) to be non-neutral and demanded its replacement.
Joseph Biden (Chairman, U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee), Richard Lugar, and Mel Martinez sponsored a resolution accusing Russia of attempting to undermine Georgia's territorial integrity and called for replacing the Russian-manned peacekeeping force operating under CIS mandate.
According to U.S. senator Richard Lugar, the United States supported Georgia's call for the withdrawal of Russian peacekeepers from the conflict zones. Later, EU South Caucasus envoy Peter Semneby said that "Russia's actions in the Georgia spy row have damaged its credibility as a neutral peacekeeper in the EU's Black Sea neighbourhood."
Tensions between Georgia and Russia began escalating in April 2008. A bomb explosion on 1 August 2008 targeted a car transporting Georgian peacekeepers. South Ossetians were responsible for instigating this incident, which marked the opening of hostilities and injured five Georgian servicemen. In response, several South Ossetian militiamen were hit.
South Ossetian separatists began shelling Georgian villages on 1 August. These artillery attacks caused Georgian servicemen to return fire periodically since 1 August.
At around 19:00 on 7 August 2008, Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili announced a unilateral ceasefire and called for peace talks. However, escalating assaults against Georgian villages (located in the South Ossetian conflict zone) were soon matched with gunfire from Georgian troops, who then proceeded to move in the direction of the capital of the self-proclaimed Republic of South Ossetia (Tskhinvali) on the night of 8 August, reaching its center in the morning of 8 August.
One Georgian diplomat told Russian newspaper Kommersant on 8 August that by taking control of Tskhinvali, Tbilisi wanted to demonstrate that Georgia would not tolerate the killing of Georgian citizens.
According to Russian military expert Pavel Felgenhauer, the Ossetian provocation was aimed at triggering the Georgian response, which was needed as a pretext for premeditated Russian military invasion. According to Georgian intelligence, and several Russian media reports, parts of the regular (non-peacekeeping) Russian Army had already moved to South Ossetian territory through the Roki Tunnel before the Georgian military action.
Russia accused Georgia of "aggression against South Ossetia", and launched a large-scale land, air and sea invasion of Georgia with the pretext of "peace enforcement" operation on 8 August 2008. Russian airstrikes against targets within Georgia were also launched. Abkhaz forces opened a second front on 9 August by attacking the Kodori Gorge, held by Georgia.
Tskhinvali was seized by the Russian military by 10 August. Russian forces occupied the Georgian cities of Zugdidi, Senaki, Poti,and Gori (the last one after the ceasefire agreement was negotiated). Russian Black Sea Fleet blockaded the Georgian coast.
A campaign of ethnic cleansing against Georgians in South Ossetia was conducted by South Ossetians, with Georgian villages around Tskhinvali being destroyed after the war had ended. The war displaced 192,000 people, and while many were able to return to their homes after the war, a year later around 30,000 ethnic Georgians remained displaced.
In an interview published in Kommersant, South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoity said he would not allow Georgians to return. President of France Nicolas Sarkozy negotiated a ceasefire agreement on 12 August 2008. On 17 August, Russian president Dmitry Medvedev announced that Russian forces would begin to pull out of Georgia the following day.
Russia recognised Abkhazia and South Ossetia as separate republics on 26 August. In response to Russia's recognition, the Georgian government severed diplomatic relations with Russia. Russian forces left the buffer areas bordering Abkhazia and South Ossetia on 8 October and the European Union Monitoring Mission in Georgia assumed authority over the buffer areas.
Since the war, Georgia has maintained that Abkhazia and South Ossetia are Russian-occupied Georgian territories
Our 4-Day South Ossetia Tour will give you a truly authentic glimpse into probably the least-visited of all unrecognized countries.
Hidden deep in the Caucasus Mountains, South Ossetia is a stunning mountainous country with only a single road running in and out.
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