Thursday, August 9, 2012

A brief look at South Ossetia

In continuing our blog discussion on the disputed territories and states of Europe we're heading back to the Caucuses. This time we're going to focus on South Ossetia, a state that has a few backers in the international community but one that Georgia still claims as part of its territory. Like most of the other Caucuses states that we've talked about this week, much of the current state of affairs has to do with the break up of the Soviet Union and deep historical issues that predate the communist empire by centuries.

The Ossetians were a people group that are believed to have descended from the Alani tribes, one of the many barbarian hoards that poured into parts of the Roman Empire when everything out east went haywire because of the Huns and other massive tribes that messed up the old social order. The Ossetians became Christianized through Byzantine and Georgian influences during the early Middle Ages. But, like the Alani from whence they came they too were pushed out of their homeland by a massive group of barbarians, the Mongols. When the Mongols started pouring eastward the Ossetians settled into what became known as Ossetia, which today is split into roughly two halves, North Ossetia-Alania, a federal subject of Russia and South Ossetia, the de facto independent state that is disputed by Georgia. This split occured during the late Middle Ages, early Modern period when the northern Ossetians fell under Russian rule and the Southern ones came under Georgian power. Both enjoyed refuge from the Mongols in this set up so all was well and dandy.

Eventually though, South Ossetia became part of the Russian Empire in 1801 with the rest of Georgia. This lasted until the Bolshevik uprising when North Ossetia sided with the Bolsheviks and Georgia sided with a breakaway communist group called the Mensheviks. Some Georgians accused the South Ossetians of being Bolshevik supporters and a series of South Ossetian rebellions sprang up between 1918-1920. Eventually though the Bolsheviks would control the whole Soviet Empire and the relative peace and normality that existed between Ossetians and Georgians would resume, basically unabated until the end of the Soviet Era.

As the USSR was crumbling there was a surge of nationalism within much of the Soviet Empire and the Ossetians and Georgians were no different. South Ossetia didn't mind being part of a new nation of Georgia so long as they retained the autonomy they had enjoyed under Soviet dominion. Georgia however was looking to annex all of its historical boundaries and create a unified state. South Ossetians bucked at a call for Georgian to be the only nationally recognized language and conflict soon broke out when Georgia removed any autonomy for South Ossetia. The 1991-92 South Ossetian war witnessed atrocities committed by both Georgian and South Ossetian militias. In 1992 a cease fire was reached between Georgia and South Ossetia because the Georgians feared a full scale military conflict with Russia who was backing South Ossetia. It was this war and the genocidal tendencies within that really fueled the current state of affairs in the Georgian-South Ossetian relations.

All was relatively quiet for 12 years until in 2004 tensions flared up again. Georgia created a South Ossetian government within the Georgian capital of Tblisi in order to gain more control over the region. South Ossetians, especially those in the region's capital of Tskhinvali railed against this power grab. Georgian troops came in and stormed a black market operation that crippled the South Ossetian economy and fought against South Ossetians and Russian "freelance" fighters. Somehow I think the term mercenary here would be appropriate. The fighting was short-lived but atrocities furthered the rift between South Ossetia and Georgia.

In 2008 fighting flared up again. A quick cease-fire was announced but Georgian troops rolled in right before the cease-fire was supposed to come into effect. They did this, according to Georgian sentiments because of a growing number of Russian military troops and vehicles in the region. In the attack on Tskhinvali a number of Russian peacekeepers were killed. The day after Russia came into the region and steamrolled the Georgian forces. As this was happening, Russia entered into Georgia proper by way of both South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Georgia and Russia came to a cease-fire, but South Ossetia was left as a de facto independent state. Unfortunately though the capital of Tskhinvali was left in ruins and nearly 40,000 people had been killed or displaced by the short war. Today, South Ossetia operates as its own independent state and efforts to rebuild the capital are underway, albeit slowly.

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