So, South Ossetia. Little mountainous region up in the back of the Caucasus. Used to be part of Georgia. Declared independence in 1991, just as the Soviet Union was falling apart. There was a shooting war for about a year, which left around a thousand people dead, some tens of thousands ethnically cleansed. When it ended, most of South Ossetia had de facto independence, which they’ve maintained since then with strong support from Russia.
Couple of things you need to grasp if you’re going to understand South Ossetia. One is, it’s not very horizontal. It’s all mountains, with just enough flat ground for one modest-sized town. Almost all of it is over 1000 meters up, about a third of it over 2,000 meters.
Two, it’s not that big. There are only around 75,000 people in South Ossetia. In both area and population, it’s the smallest of the frozen conflicts.
Three, it’s poor. Really poor. I mean, Transnistria is one of the poorest corners of Europe, but Transnistria is Switzerland compared to South Ossetia. It’s basically 75,000 people living on rocks. Okay, okay, not rocks, but this is a region whose traditional economy consisted of driving sheep uphill in spring and back down again in autumn. There’s no industry to speak of. About one-third of the state’s income comes from charging tolls on the single highway. South Ossetia doesn’t export much but timber, sheep and people. Well, and there was a big counterfeiting operation making US $100 bills a couple of years back. But anyway, point is, not much there.
The Ossetians themselves are one of those weird Caucasus groups. Their language is distantly related to Persian; the Ossetians are supposedly descended from the Alans, a medieval nomadic people who were vaguely connected to the ancient Scythians. The Alans had a small empire going in the northern Caucasus back in the 12th century, but then they got badly steamrollered by the Mongols. The survivors fled up into the rugged slopes of the Caucasus Mountains, which is where their Ossetian descendants still live today.
That’s why there’s a North and South Ossetia, by the way: two regions are separated by the spine of the Greater Caucasus range. These are some serious mountains — jagged savage peaks that go up three, four, five kilometers. There’s only one road connection between the two Ossetias. It goes through the Roki Tunnel, which was blasted out by Soviet engineers back in the glorious Soviet heyday of blasting big holes in things. The tunnel is at 3,000 meters altitude and 3.8 km long, and it gets closed by snow every winter. When that happens, there is no way over those mountains by land whatsoever, unless you’re a trained Alpinist with a few days to kill. Ossetians like to talk about the essential unity of the Ossetian people, but geography isn’t really working with them.
Okay, so much for the basics. Now an obvious question: why should you, dear reader, care about South Ossetia?
You probably shouldn’t.
Unlike the other frozen conflicts, there’s not a lot at stake in South Ossetia. It’s small, it’s remote, it has no resources and zero strategic value. It’s very unlikely to lead to a larger conflict. So unless you’re Georgian or Ossetian, there’s no reason it should keep you awake at night. (And even if you’re Georgian, you probably spend a lot more time thinking about Abkhazia — Georgia’s other frozen conflict — than about South Ossetia.) South Ossetia is just not that important to the rest of the world.
That said, South Ossetia is interesting in itself. Tolstoy is supposed to have said every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Well, ethnonationalist conflicts are sort of like that: every one has has its own particular and fascinating awfulness.
Here are some things that I find interesting about South Ossetia:
— It’s not an “ancient tribal hatred” kind of conflict, nor is it a “clash of civilizations”. South Ossetians and Georgians are both Orthodox Christians, and they don’t have a long history of conflict. Under the Soviet Union they got along pretty well, and there was a lot of intermarriage between the two groups.
— Relations between the two groups turned septic largely because of bad leadership during the late Soviet years. One man in particular — Zviad Gamsakhurdia, first President of independent Georgia — bears much of the blame. Gamsakhurdia deserves a post of his own, but the key point is, he was (1) a foaming-at-the-mouth Georgian nationalist; (2) arrogant, utterly self-centered, and constitutionally incapable of compromise; and, (3) a complete, toe-sucking incompetent who destroyed pretty much everything he touched. Other actors share the blame, but Gamsakhurdia bears first responsibility for turning a difficult but manageable ethnic problem into a bloody little civil war.
— The two groups used to live comfortably intermingled. The 1991-2 war saw a double wave of ethnic cleansing, with Georgians fleeing to Georgia and a larger number of South Ossetians fleeing north across the mountains. (This would cause problems in the north, as southern refugees clashed with North Ossetia’s neighbors, the Ingush.)
— Even today, the two groups are still not thoroughly separated. Somewhere between 10% and a quarter of South Ossetia is still under Georgian control. Most of this area is inhabited by ethnic Georgians, but some South Ossetians live there too.
— There’s an “alternative” South Ossetian government that pledges allegiance to Georgia. It’s run by an ethnic Ossetian who was one of the leaders of the rebellion, but who later fell out with his former colleagues and switched to being a loyalist. This government runs the Georgian-occupied part of South Ossetia; it’s not clear how many actual ethnic Ossetians are under it. “At least a few, not many” seems to be right.
— The majority of South Ossetians hold Russian passports. This is because (1) a Russian passport means the possibility of a job, higher education, and a way out of South Ossetia if things go bad; and (2) the Russian government has been handing them out to any South Ossetian who asks. (South Ossetia is one of those places where almost every family has someone working abroad, usually in Russia.)
— South Ossetia has declared its independence several times, most recently last week. There was also a referendum in 2006, which recorded a 96% vote in favor of independence. (Along with a 95% turnout and a 94% vote to re-elect the incumbent President.) Pretty much nobody except Russia takes this seriously.
There’s more to say about South Ossetia, but it’s probably better in two medium posts than in one very long one. Back in a day or two.