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What Should I Know About South Ossetia?

Brendan McGuigan
Brendan McGuigan

South Ossetia is a region within the nation of Georgia, currently vying for independent status. It covers 1,500 square miles (3,900 sq. km), making it just a bit bigger than the state of Rhode Island.

The Ossetians make up a distinct ethnic group, descendants of Central Asian tribes, within the nation of Georgia. South Ossetia was first claimed by Russia at the turn of the 19th century, at the same time Georgia itself was. While North Ossetia entered the USSR as a part of the Terek Soviet Republic, South Ossetia was adopted as part of the Menshevik Georgian Democratic Republic. Even as far back as the 1920s, South Ossetia was made its own district, as an Autonomous Oblast.

Man holding a globe
Man holding a globe

In 1989 there was a movement to reunify North Ossetia and South Ossetia as a part of the larger Russian Federation. This was rejected by Georgia, who in response revoked South Ossetia’s relative autonomy. Mandates proclaimed by the Georgian government following Georgian independence in 1991 led many in South Ossetia to worry that their culture was being suppressed — the adoption of Georgian as the exclusive state language being the most troubling. South Ossetians began to push Georgia for greater autonomy, which eventually culminated in a crackdown by Georgians, which resulted in nearly 1,000 deaths, and almost 100,000 South Ossetians fleeing north into Russia and North Ossetia — leaving less than 50,000 Ossetians in South Ossetia.

After pressure from Russia, Georgia negotiated a ceasefire with the South Ossetian factions. A period of relative peace ensued, but was broken in 2004 by a burst of violence following Georgian government crackdowns on crime in South Ossetia. South Ossetia first declared independence from Georgia in 1991 following a referendum, but this has not been recognized by any state. The region followed this up with a referendum in 2006 that also declared independence, which has also failed to receive any recognition from the international community or Georgia.

Currently the Georgian solution to the problem is to continue peaceful negotiations, while rejecting any implication of a sovereign state of South Ossetia. Proposals for relative autonomy within a Georgian state that would encompass all of South Ossetia have been put forward by the Georgian government, and it seems likely that unless something drastic changes, this will be the future of South Ossetia. Complicating the matter somewhat is the fact that Russia seems to support South Ossetia both politically and economically. Many South Ossetians hold Russian passports, and the Russian rouble is a de facto unit of currency throughout South Ossetia. Georgia sees this as a threat to its sovereignty and unification, and has complained on multiple occasions about Russian involvement in the region.

The situation in South Ossetia remains tense, and although both sides have been fairly committed to non-violence for the past few years — in no small part thanks to Russia’s insistence on it — it is possible that violence could break out again at any moment. Travel in South Ossetia is questionable at best, and it should be avoided unless the traveler feels very comfortable around such tensions and possible outbreaks of violence.

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