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? Continue reading