Ossetians speak Ossetic, a language of the North Iranian language group and are thought to have originated in the fusion of nomadic, Sarmatian and indigenous populations of the North Caucasus in the fourth century, with the Sarmatian (later called Alan) element dominant.
Approximately 70,000 Ossetians lived in the autonomous region of South Ossetia in 1989, with a further 100,000 elsewhere in Georgia before the outbreak of the conflict. According to the Georgian Census of 2002, 38,000 Ossetians remained in undisputed Georgian territory, accounting for 0.9 per cent of Georgia’s population. Many Georgian residents of the autonomous region also fled as a result of the 1989 conflict, but an estimated 20,000 remained in villages typically intermingled with Ossetian villages. There has been significant intermarriage between Ossetians and Georgians, but statistics are unavailable. There is no reliable data for the total population of South Ossetia today, although prior to the August 2008 war between the Georgian army and South Ossetian and Russian forces, it was thought to be in the region of 70,000. Many ethnic Georgians fled or were driven from South Ossetia during and after the conflict, but the extent and duration of their displacement remain difficult to determine.
A further 300,000 Ossetians live in the Republic of North Ossetia – Alania (under the jurisdiction of the Russian Federation).
Ossetian settlement in Georgia, composed of the Tualläg subgroup, has been a gradual process, beginning in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Ossetians are primarily Orthodox Christian with a small Muslim element. Ossetians enjoyed a brief period of unity in 1905 when they were grouped together in one national district; however, since then, like other groups in the Caucasus, they have been subjected to numerous border changes Stalin divided them between the North Ossetian Autonomous Republic in the Russian Federation and the South Ossetian Autonomous Region in the Soviet Socialist Republic of Georgia.
Despite the fact that the majority of Ossetians in Georgia lived outside of the autonomous region, and Ossetians were one of the most Georgianized of the republic’s minorities in linguistic terms, Georgian moves towards independence created tensions with South Ossetia in the 1980s. Mobilization by the South Ossetian Popular Front (Adaemon Nykhas in Ossetic) against perceived discrimination followed the promulgation of legislation strengthening the status of the Georgian language in August 1989. These demands soon turned into requests for unification with North Ossetia. The local Georgian population protested, which led to clashes in December 1989 and the dispatch of Soviet Interior Ministry troops in January 1990. As the year progressed, the South Ossetians, like other minority groups, felt increasingly marginalized from a political arena, that excluded participation by regionally or ethnically based parties in the autumn elections.
The central authorities resisted the South Ossetian declaration of sovereignty in September 1990, culminating in the abolition of South Ossetia’s autonomous status at the end of the year and the deployment of the Georgian National Guard in the capital Tskhinvali. The imposition of National Guard rule over the territory led to widespread human rights abuses. Following the South Ossetian declaration of independence in December 1991, the intensity of the conflict increased, leading to the displacement of thousands of people. The outflow of refugees into North Ossetia (in the Russian Federation) had an impact on the development of the conflict between North Ossetia and Ingushetia (see Russian Federation). Georgian attempts to reassert control over the territory were hampered by political turmoil in the country as a whole and by the fact that South Ossetia received support from North Ossetia and other areas of the northern Caucasus, as well as covert support from Russia. Georgia and Russia reached a ceasefire agreement in Sochi on 24 June 1992, providing for a peacekeeping force, the establishment of a control commission and joint Ossetian–Georgian patrols, observed by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in Tbilisi. A Joint Control Commission, composed of South Ossetian, North Ossetian, Russian and Georgian staff was to coordinate peacekeeping efforts.
Negotiations continued after 1992, but South Ossetian leaders were keen to see the outcome of Georgian–Abkhaz negotiations before coming to an agreement. South Ossetia, as one of the few points where communications links traverse the great Caucasus range, developed into a centre for highly lucrative trade in contraband. The South Ossetians continued to insist that an institutionalized link with North Ossetia was needed to guarantee their ethnic survival, whereas Georgians saw this as a platform for continued Russian interference. Almost all Ossetians in South Ossetia reportedly acquired Russian passports. Over time, most Georgian sources no longer even referred to South Ossetia, given the earlier abolition of the autonomy, instead variously calling it Tskhinvali district, the wider region of Shida Kartli, or by its medieval name, Samachablo.
Georgian–Ossetian relations sharply declined following Georgia’s 2003 Rose Revolution, with a fleeting resumption of armed hostilities in July 2004. Following an exchange of fire, both sides agreed to a demilitarization of the region. Although the ceasefire held, near-daily shootings continued. On 26 January 2005 President Saakashvili presented proposals for resolving the Georgian–Ossetian conflict to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, followed by presentation of an action plan by Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli to the OSCE Permanent Council in Vienna in October of the same year. The plan envisaged a model of autonomy within an ambiguously defined federal Georgian state. Although the OSCE Ministerial Council expressed approval of this plan, the South Ossetian leadership rejected it.
Tensions between Georgia and Russia, which was overtly sympathetic to Ossetian and Abkhaz separatists, sharply increased in 2006. Georgia attempted to impose visa requirements for Russian troops arriving on peacekeeping duty in South Ossetia and in September 2006 its detention of Russian military officers on spying charges prompted Moscow to slap a trade embargo on Georgia and suspend transportation links. Meanwhile, Moscow continued to provide Ossetians Russian passports, making ‘protection of Russian citizens’ a leading justification for its actions in Georgia.
Geopolitical factors provided added incentives for conflict between Tbilisi and Moscow. In December 2006, Russian President Vladimir Putin stated that if Kosovo were to gain independence from Serbia, then Abkhazia and South Ossetia should be free to become independent of Georgia. In February 2008, Kosovo declared independence and many countries, including the United States and most EU member states, recognized it over Moscow’s strenuous objections. Russia was angered by American military support to Georgia and support for Saakashvili’s ambitions for Georgian membership in NATO. Moscow also disliked the US-backed oil pipeline opened in July 2006 that traversed Georgia from Azerbaijan to Turkey, and which reduced Russian leverage over EU member states by making them less reliant on Russian energy supplies. As tensions between Georgia and Russia mounted, conditions worsened for ethnic minorities in South Ossetia. Exclusion of minorities threatened to push the region into conflict.
In August 2007, the Georgian government accused Russia of violating its airspace to fire a heavy missile (that failed to detonate) near South Ossetia. Russia denied the claim, accusing Georgia of staging the incident as a provocation. In September, military clashes occurred in both Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, addressing the UN General Assembly, blamed these on Russia and accused Moscow of backing a ‘mission of terror’.
Conflict escalated dramatically in August 2008 following skirmishes between Georgian forces and Ossetian militias. Hours after declaring a cease-fire, Saakashvili ordered a full military assault on the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali ‘to restore constitutional order’. Claiming that South Ossetian militias had first shelled Georgian villages, Georgian forces bombed and shelled Ossetian targets for two days and entered the city, with disputed results. Large numbers of Russian forces (following sizeable reinforcements to ‘peacekeeping’ units in South Ossetia and Abkhazia over the preceding months) poured across the border within hours to stop what Moscow termed “genocide”. Russian claims of 1,500-2,000 civilian deaths from the Georgian offensive on Tskhinvali were subsequently called into question. Although there were reports of Georgian abuses and likely war crimes, Human Rights Watch could only document about 100 civilian deaths, and Russian prosecutors only 133. Among Russians, Georgians, and Ossetians, military fatalities were thought to number in the hundreds.
Russian forces joined Ossetian irregulars in quickly driving the Georgian army from South Ossetia, but did not stop there. Russia also moved troops into Abkhazia and swathes of Georgia proper, where they forced Georgian forces to retreat and destroyed military and civilian infrastructure alike. South Ossetian paramilitaries joined Russian forces in crossing into Georgia proper, particularly around the town of Gori. Widespread reports of war crimes and human rights abuses emerged from the conflict zones and ethnic Georgians fled and were driven from areas of Russian and Ossetian control. Russia agreed to a French ceasefire proposal in mid-August. Before the month was out, Moscow recognized South Ossetian (and Abkhaz) independence and in September entered a ‘friendship treaty’ with the territory that included pledges of military assistance and cooperation. Although western countries in particular continued to reject their independence, the longstanding de facto independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia appeared cemented, with displaced Georgian minorities in each facing long odds of ever returning home.
In November 2006 South Ossetians voted almost unanimously to preserve the territory’s de facto status as an independent state and keep in power President Eduard Kokoity, who had originally been elected in 2001. The referendum was hugely popular, winning between 98 and 99 per cent of the ballot. However, the Tbilisi government thoroughly discounted the results and the Council of Europe pronounced the referendum as ‘unnecessary, unhelpful and unfair’ because ethnic Georgians were not permitted to vote. Simultaneously, in November 2006 an alternative poll took place in the Georgian-administered village of Eredvi. It was formally organized by the ‘Salvation Union of Ossetia’, established a few weeks earlier by Ossetians who served in pre-Kokoity administration in Tskhinvali and by Ossetian activists living in Georgia proper. The poll resulted in Dmitri Sanakoev, a former official of the pre-Kokoity government and an ethnic Ossetian, becoming alternative de facto president. The new Sanakoev administration, based in the Georgian village of Kurta, pledged allegiance to Tbilisi and territorial integrity.
Even before the August 2008 war, the governance environment in South Ossetia was less favourable for minorities than in some other unrecognized states. This was partly due to the fact that the de facto authorities did not control a single, contiguous territory but a patchwork of territories inhabited predominantly by Ossetians intermingled with settlements predominantly inhabited by Georgians, which were under Georgian jurisdiction. This intermingled settlement pattern was a distinguishing feature of South Ossetia compared to other unrecognized entities in the South Caucasus, and provided both greater opportunities for cooperation between Georgian and Ossetian sides, and greater security risks, by providing further incentives for ethnic expulsions. Claims that the South Ossetian conflict was the ‘easiest’ of the Caucasus conflicts to solve tended to ignore this reality.
The principal source of revenue for the de facto authorities is control over traffic passing through South Ossetia to and from Russia, much of it illegal. The relative power of criminal business interests in South Ossetia has circumscribed the de facto authorities’ capacity to institutionalize and entrench state power. Russia is another key player in South Ossetia, especially through its share of the peacekeeping forces, and the North Ossetia Republic also influences developments. The political system in South Ossetia is ostensibly presidential, although real power appears to be exercised by different groups or networks of intertwined business and political interests. All regional currencies are reportedly accepted in South Ossetia.
Although Ossetic is recognized as an official language, Russian is the medium used in practice by the de facto authorities in South Ossetia. Many Ossetians also have knowledge of Georgian, although this is probably less the case with younger generations.
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