Regions and territories: South Ossetia (BBC NEWS)

Regions and territories: South Ossetia

Map of South Ossetia

Mountainous South Ossetia, which is in Georgia, is separated from North Ossetia, which is in Russia, by the border between the two countries running high in the Caucasus. Much of the region lies more than 1000 metres above sea level.

South Ossetia is inhabited mostly by ethnic Ossetians who speak a language remotely related to Farsi. Georgians account for less than one-third of the population.

Overview

Tbilisi is adamant that there can be no compromise over South Ossetia being part of Georgia. It firmly resists Ossetian separatism, shunning the use of the name South Ossetia which it sees as implying political bonds with North Ossetia, and therefore as a threat to Georgia’s territorial integrity.

As far as Georgia is concerned, the use of the word « north » in the title North Ossetia is misleading. In Tbilisi’s eyes, the region of Russia which bears that name is the only Ossetia. It prefers to call South Ossetia, which is part of the Georgian province of Shida Kartli, by the ancient name of Samachablo or, more recently, Tskhinvali region.

History

The Ossetians are believed to be descended from tribes which migrated into the area from Asia many hundreds of years ago and settled in what is now North Ossetia.

Tskhinvali skyline

Tskhinvali, the capital of breakaway South 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. Some fought alongside the Russians against neighbours who had long been rivals, while others made the difficult journey south across the mountains to escape.

By tradition, the Ossetians have had good relations with Russians and were regarded as loyal citizens, first of the Russian empire and later of the Soviet Union. They sided with the Kremlin when Bolshevik forces 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.

Violence flares

In the twilight of the Soviet Union, as Georgian nationalist Zviad Gamsakhurdia came to prominence in Tbilisi, South Ossetia too flexed its separatist muscles. Soviet forces were sent to keep the peace in late 1989 following violent clashes between Georgians and Ossetians in the capital, Tskhinvali. Violence flared again as South Ossetia declared its intention to secede from Georgia in 1990 and, the following year, effective independence.

Anti-Georgia rally in South Ossetia, June 2004

Protesters rally against presence of Georgian troops near South Ossetia

The collapse of the USSR and Georgian independence in 1991 did nothing to dampen South Ossetia’s determination to consolidate the break with Tbilisi. 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. Hundreds died in the fighting.

Political stalemate followed. Separatist voices became less strident during President Shevardnadze’s rule in Georgia. South Ossetia, its economy and infrastructure a shambles and crime rife, faded from the headlines. It returned to the foreground when Mikhail Saakashvili took the reins as president in Tbilisi.

He was quick to spell out his intention to bring breakaway regions to heel. He has offered South Ossetia dialogue and autonomy within a single Georgian state but that falls far short of what separatists demand.

It came as no surprise when South Ossetians voted overwhelmingly in favour of restating their demand for independence from Tbilisi in an unrecognised referendum in November 2006. A simultaneous referendum among the region’s ethnic Georgians voted just as emphatically to stay with Tbilisi. Compromise seems a long way off.

Tensions are never far from the surface and violence flares sporadically. Russia maintains close contacts with the leadership in Tskhinvali where separatists welcome Moscow’s supportive stance. To Georgia’s deep annoyance, most South Ossetians have Russian passports and the Russian rouble is commonly used in trade.

  • Following nearly a week of clashes between Georgian troops and separatist forces in early August 2008, Georgia on 7 August launched an aerial bombardment and ground attack on South Ossetia . By the next day, Georgian forces were reportedly in control of Tskhinvali. Russia said its citizens were under attack and responded by pouring thousands of troops into South Ossetia, and launching bombing raids both over the province and on targets in other parts of Georgia. Within days, Russia had seized control of Tskhinvali. The fighting between Russian and Georgian forces has raised fears of a full-scale war in the Caucasus.
  • Facts

    • Territory: South Ossetia
    • Status: Break-away region of Georgia. Separated from Georgia in a 1991-92 war.
    • Status: Region within Georgia
    • Population: Approximately 70,000
    • Capital: Tskhinvali
    • Major languages: Ossetian, Georgian, Russian
    • Major religion: Christianity
    • Currency: Russian rouble, Georgian lari

    Leaders

    President: Eduard Kokoity

    One-time wrestling champion Eduard Kokoity, or Kokoyev, won unrecognised presidential elections in South Ossetia in December 2001 and again in November 2006.

    A businessman and former communist, he holds Russian citizenship.

    Eduard Kokoity

    South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoity

    He has angered Tbilisi by stating his aim to be the unification of North and South Ossetia within the Russian Federation. He describes Russia as the main guarantor of stability in the Caucasus and has strong ties with the like-minded Abkhaz leadership.

    He has warned Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili against aggressive Georgian nationalism and insists that the people of South Ossetia do not regard themselves as part of Georgia.

    Mr Kokoity was born in 1964.

    Media

    The South Ossetian authorities operate a TV service and programmes from Russia are rebroadcast in the territory.

    Private media are not prohibited, but the private newspaper XXI Vek publishes only sporadically.

    Georgian state-run TV broadcasts a daily news programme in Ossetian; a daily two-hour programme in the language is aired by Georgian state radio.

    In late 2005 reports emerged that a Russian-language, pro-Georgian station called Alania TV was targeting viewers in South Ossetia from a transmitter in Georgia.

    The press

    • Yuzhnaya Osetiya – Russian-language, state-funded
    • Khurzarin – Ossetian-language, state-funded

    Television

    • Ir – operated by State Committee for TV and Radio Broadcasting

    Radio

    • Ayzeld FM – sole private radio station

    News agency

    • RES – operated by South Ossetian Press and Information Committee

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