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Minorities At Risk Project: Home    

Assessment for Ossetians (South) in Georgia

View Group Chronology

Georgia Facts
Area:    69,700 sq. km.
Capital:    Tibilisi
Total Population:    5,190,000 (source: U.S. Census Bureau, 1998, est.)

Risk Assessment | Analytic Summary | References



Risk Assessment

The Ossetian conflict in Georgia exhibits many factors that increase the likelihood of violent conflict in the future: the group has experienced both repression and rebellion in recent past; it is highly organized militarily and politically; there are transnational kin in Russia with whom many Ossetians would like to unite; the group is geographically concentrated in the de facto independent South Ossetian region; and the Georgian government has stated its intention to reunite the country while demonstrating a willingness to engage in violent brinkmanship to achieve that goal, most recently in 2004.

Recent negotiations between Tblisi and Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia, have not been fruitful in settling the status of South Ossetia. The Ossetians continue to insist on independence for their state, most recently in a 2006 referendum, although political elites have also called for unification with North Ossetia inside Russia. The Ossetians have a functioning government, with a president and parliament, which were elected over strong Georgian opposition. Tbilisi's policy towards its breakaway republics has been to advocate a unified Georgian state, but with widespread constitutional autonomy, a solution repeatedly rejected by Tskhnavli. While Georgia and South Ossetia have managed to reach agreements on economic reconstruction and the return of some refugees, a political settlement to the conflict has proved elusive.

Most of the good-will that had built-up between the two sides of the conflict over the past ten years was seriously damaged with the large-scale fighting that occurred in 2004 between government forces and South Ossetian military units. No major violent incidents occurred in 2005 and 2006, but low-level violence occasionally continued and tensions remain high. However, in 2008, renewed violence, involving land, air and sea warfare, directly involved Russian troops in a five-day conflict with Georgian troops on one side and Russian, Ossetian and Abkhazian troops on the other. While a peace agreement was mediated, tensions remain high on all sides.

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Analytic Summary

The Ossetians found in Georgia constitute 12 percent of the total number of Ossetians, who are a diverse people inhabiting the central Caucasus Mountains. The majority of the other Ossetians live to the north, in the Russian Republic of North Ossetia-Alania. Due perhaps to the extreme difficulty of travel and communication between villages, the Ossetians in general have a fairly underdeveloped sense of nationhood. The South Ossetians, however, because of their recent conflict with the Georgian state, have developed a degree of group cohesion far greater than their co-ethnics to the north.

The Ossetians are comprised of many different subgroups and tribes that speak a variety of dialects, some of which are mutually unintelligible. While some Ossetian groups are Sunni Muslims, the majority are Eastern Orthodox Christians, which caused the various regimes in Moscow to look favorably upon them over the years. Unlike many Caucasian minorities, the Ossetians maintained a mutually beneficial relationship with their Russian colonizers and avoided the mass deportations of the Stalin era.

Fighting broke out in South Ossetia shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Georgian President in 1991, the unpredictable former dissident Zviad Gamsakhurdia, introduced legislation strengthening the position of the Georgian language across the entire state. This was followed by decrees banning regional parties from national elections and various other laws that the people in Georgia's regions interpreted as discriminatory. Despite the fact that there was no history of strained relations between Georgians and Ossetians prior to this "war of laws," and that the majority of the Ossetians shared the same religion as the Georgians (BELIEF = 0), violence erupted in 1991 between Georgian and Ossetian forces, resulting in 1,000 deaths, more than 10,000 displaced, extensive destruction of homes and infrastructure, and a region of divided sovereignty claims. The war ended in a 1992 ceasefire, which was as much the result of internal division in the leadership in Tbilisi as military success by the South Ossetians. The ceasefire that ended the "mildest ethnic conflict in the Caucasus" is now supported by the presence of a "trilateral" peacekeeping force, consisting of troops from Russia, Georgia and South Ossetia. As a result of that conflict, as well as migratory patterns over the past 15 years, approximately 55 percent of all Georgian Ossetians live in the de facto autonomous region of South Ossetia (GROUPCON = 2; GC6 = 2), with the rest dispersed in various cities and towns within the rest of Georgia; ethnic Ossetians comprise over 80 percent of the population within South Ossetia itself.

In both the Abkhaz and South Ossetian conflicts the major issues have been, and continue to be, the return of ethnic Georgian refugees that fled the region during the wars and the redefinition of Abkhaz and Ossetian sovereignty. Although not formally recognized by the international community, the Abkhaz and Ossetians have adopted the trappings and prerogatives of full sovereignty by such measures as drafting a new constitution (Abkhazia), holding regular presidential and parliamentary elections, and concluding treaties with autonomous entities within the Russian federation. Naturally, statements and actions suggesting the recognition or de facto accommodation of Abkhaz and Ossetian separatism have persistently met with immediate and vociferous denunciation by the Georgian government.

Despite repeated rounds of negotiations sponsored by the OSCE, the ultimate status of South Ossetia is still unresolved. The government in Tskhinvali has maintained its demand for full independence, which was asserted most recently in a 2006 referendum (PROT06 = 2), but has also expressed an interest in joining Russia (POLGR04-06 = 4); the majority of South Ossetians hold Russian citizenship.. Whenever Moscow has placed travel restrictions on Georgian nationals (e.g., in 2000 and again in 2006) these restrictions have not applied to citizens of the two break-away republics, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This was widely interpreted as an attempt to further undermine Tblisi's influence in these regions, and is another reason why some observers have called the South Ossetians "de facto Russian citizens."

In 2004, major military operations occurred in South Ossetia, initiated by the Georgian authorities. As with Georgia’s 2004 escalation of conflict in Ajaria, which ended in Tbilisi reasserting its control over the region, the conflict with South Ossetia was seen as brinkmanship. However, the conflict in South Ossetia was far more violent, involving multiple attacks and shelling from both sides between July 8th and August 18h, leaving dozens dead (REB04 = 5) and tensions high. While there have been a few incidents of violence in the subsequent years (REB05-06 = 1), no major conflagrations erupted again until the 2008 conflict. The Tbilisi authorities have repeatedly asserted their commitment to a peaceful reintegration of South Ossetia, but they have also significantly raised their military budget since Saakshvili took office in 2003, with an increase of 143 percent in 2005 (the single largest increase of any country in the world that year) and a further substantial increase in 2006. The prospects for peace remain decidedly uncertain.

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References

Council of Europe. 9/13/2001. “Honoring of obligations and commitments by Georgia.” Committee on the Honouring of Obligations and Commitments by Member States of the Council of Europe (Monitoring Committee), Doc. 9191.

Freedom House. 2003. Nations in Transit.

International Crisis Group. Various reports on Georgia. 2003-2006. www.crisisgroup.org.

Lexis-Nexis. Various news reports. 2001-2006.

Matveeva, Anna. 2003. “Minorities in the South Caucasus.” Working Group on Minorities, Commission on Human Rights.

Mateeva, Anna. 2002. “The South Caucasus: Nationalism, Conflict and Minorities.” Minority Rights Group International Report.

Nodia, Ghia. 2001. “Georgia's Membership in the Council of Europe: Achievements and Failures.” Caucasian Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development; compiled for United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Various reports. 2004-2006

U.S. State Department. Country Reports on Human Rights Reports: Georgia. 2001-2006.

U.S. State Department. International Religious Freedom Report: Georgia. 2001-2003.

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Information current as of December 31, 2006