The Georgia – South Ossetia Struggle – the Roots of Conflict

Posted in Other | 21-Jul-04 | Author: Dmitry Udalov

Extremely alarming reports are coming in from the region of the Georgia - Ossetia conflict. Units of Georgian special forces are being brought up to the administrative border of South Ossetia, exchanges of fire arise periodically and threats are being made to carry out a military operation against Tskhinvali. All this can be regarded as a prelude to an extremely dangerous scenario.

In recent years, the situation in the area of the Georgian-Ossetian conflict has been successfully controlled, mainly due to a unique peacekeeping operation with the participation of Russian peacekeepers. Unfortunately, a spiral of tension has begun to be unfolded of late. The Russian contingent exercises restraint now, in spite of the attempts to destabilize the situation and provoke an outbreak of violence.

The Caucasus has become the most explosive region since the collapse of the USSR. There are several reasons which account for this:

  • The region has one of the greatest ethnic varieties in the world. Several hundreds of different people and ethnic groups live here.
  • The religious factor multiplies the negative effect of the previous point.
  • The region is situated between three powers: Turkey, Iran and Russia. The continuous struggle between these powers for control over the Caucasus has not contributed to stability in the region.
  • In the 20th Century, the absolutely brainless Soviet policy of settling all problems through deporting some people and ethnic groups from the Caucasus to Central Asia caused tremendous consequences.

The present Georgia – Ossetia crisis has its own long and complex history.

The Ossetians are one of the most ancient peoples populating the territory of the C.I.S. They live in South and North Ossetia, Kabardin-Balkaria, the Stavropol Territory, various regions of Georgia and also in Turkey. Throughout many centuries, the Ossetians have closely communicated to the Georgians and other peoples, enriching their culture, language and mode of life. The main pursuit of Ossetians on the plains was tilling, and in the mountains they bred livestock.

Today the Ossetians are proud that they were able to safeguard their independence for centuries until making a voluntary decision to join the Russian Empire in 1774. Yet in the Russian Empire and in the Soviet Union, Ossetia had a status of autonomy. This status was more declarative than real, but today for Ossetians it is a very important point in support of their right to sovereignty.

After the October Revolution of 1917 and the collapse of the Russian Empire, Georgia became an independent state an annexed the territory of Ossetia. It happened in 1920 when Georgian troops invaded Ossetia. About 18,000 Ossetians were killed and 50,000 were forced to move to the Russian Soviet Republic.

When communists came to power in Georgia in 1922, the decision was made to set up the Southern Ossetia Autonomous Region. This autonomy was very declarative and in fact Georgian authorities, using the motto “friendship between nations”, implemented the policy of assimilation. Ossetian geographic names were changed into Georgian, Georgian language was taught in schools etc..

The Ossetians fought heroically together with the Georgians, the Russians and all other peoples of the USSR during WWII. More than 25% of the Ossetian population was killed during this war. It was the greatest loss of Ossetia’s population and population growth hasn’t been very rapid since then. The economy of South Ossetia also has not developed rapidly, since it is mainly agricultural.

After several decades of peaceful coexistence with Georgia, the conflict erupted in the late 1980s. Democratic reforms in the USSR and the abatement of political control which were followed by tremendous economic problems caused a great spread of nationalism both in Ossetia and in Georgia.

In June 1990 both Georgia and Ossetia adopted acts which were contradictory to each other. Georgia cancelled Ossetia's status of autonomy. At the same time, Ossetia broadened its autonomy having changed its status from that of a region of South Ossetia to the Republic of South Ossetia. Then followed a bureaucratic paper game in which both sides declared the decisions of other to be illegal, dishonest and criminal.

While the situation in the region remained unstable, Georgian authorities decided to start military operations in South Ossetia on January 5, 1991. The military standoff continued until July 1992. Hostilities were followed by the illicit actions of criminal groups that disguised themselves through wearing Georgian military uniforms. Ossetians demonstrated strong resistance, and Georgian forces responded by using heavy artillery and tank units. During the referendum on January 19, 1992, 98% of Ossetians voted for the independence of the Republic. The fighting stopped only in July 1992 when joint peace enforcement troops were deployed in South Ossetia. The deployment of the peace troops was discussed during very strained talks in Sochi (Russia) between the representatives of Russia, Georgia and South Ossetia. Although opposing sides didn’t reach any strategic long-term agreement, hostilities came to a halt.

This military incident is claimed by Ossetians to be an act of genocide; it strengthened their will to separate from Georgia. A number of meetings and agreements in the 1990s were not able to settle the differences between Georgia and South Ossetia. In addition, Shevardnadze’s administration had to deal with other Georgian “independent” regions (Adgaria, Abkhazia) that were more valuable to Georgian geopolitical interests.

Thus the peace process stalled for several years. Some Southern Ossetians decided to move to North Ossetia and become Russian citizens, but a large number of Southern Ossetians decided to take Russian citizenship and to stay in Ossetia. Today, about 90% of Southern Ossetians are citizens of the Russian Federation. This fact makes the present situation even more complex.

In my opinion, the escalation of the conflict today is advantageous to Georgian President Saakashvili. From a geopolitical point of view, South Ossetia is not a very valuable territory. In fact it is rural and mountainous. However, a small conflict with Russia concerning this territory can help Saakashvili to attract the US and EU to oppose Russian imperialist policy in the Caucasus and thus help Georgia to become closer to the West and perhaps even become a member of NATO. Saakashvili needs Russia to react very critically - even hysterically -to his own critical and hysterical official statements. However, Mr. Putin remains calm.