Frozen Conflicts 3: Welcome to South Ossetia

I’m working through the frozen conflicts in ascending order of awfulness. Two posts about Transnistria can be found here and here.

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

The new great game

Our next anniversary guest post is written by the the great Jonathan Edelstein.

It’s starting to look like the season of referenda in the near abroad.

On September 17, less than a week from today, voters in the unrecognized republic of Transnistria, located between Moldova and Ukraine, will be asked to vote on whether to “renounce [their] independent status and subsequently become part of the Republic of Moldova” or “support a policy of independence… and subsequent free association with the Russian Federation.” The option of “free association” with Russia, which is widely considered a prelude to outright annexation, is reportedly backed by a large number of Russian-financed business and political organizations, some with long-standing presence in Transnistrian politics and others apparently formed for the occasion. In the meantime, South Ossetia, which had earlier explored the possibility of petitioning Russia’s constitutional court for annexation, has just announced its own referendum for November 12, and although Abkhazia currently denies similar plans, there are rumors that a plebiscite may be in the works there as well.

The referenda, which are rather transparently supported by Moscow, represent something of a change in policy for the Russian Federation. It’s certainly nothing new for post-Soviet Russia to attempt to maintain its influence over the countries comprising the former Soviet Union, and it has at times used Russian citizenship to cement the “soft” annexation of neighboring territories; for instance, at least 90 percent of Abkhazians and South Ossetians now hold Russian passports. Nevertheless, up to now, it has soft-pedaled the issue of de jure territorial expansion. The forthcoming vote on whether Transnistria should become a second Kaliningrad suggests that policymakers in Moscow are at least starting to think seriously about taking formal responsibility for the territories that have broken away from other former Soviet republics.

At first glance, it’s hard to see why Russia would push such a policy at the present time. All three of the breakaway republics have substantial minorities who oppose union with Russia; Transnistria is almost evenly divided between ethnic Russians, Ukrainians and Romanians, and despite post-Soviet ethnic cleansing, South Ossetia and Abkhazia retain Georgian minority enclaves. The recent wave of terrorist bombings in the Transnistrian capital of Tiraspol may well be linked to the referendum, and Russian annexation of the Georgian breakaway republics would only intensify border conflicts such as the Kodori Gorge. Nor would successful plebiscites lend a veneer of legitimacy to a Russian annexation; indeed, given the current international attitude toward non-consensual secessions from recognized states, this would only make Russia’s legal position worse by transforming it into an occupying power.

In other words, the referenda seem like a recipe for stirring up ethnic conflict within the breakaway republics, making Moldova and Georgia even more alarmed over Russian political ambitions than they already are, and creating new diplomatic and legal problems for Moscow. Which leads naturally to three questions: why now, what does Russia stand to gain in compensation for these risks, and how much should the rest of the world (and particularly Europe) care?
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Kosovo, Kosovo, Kosovo…

Just ran across this article at Radio Free Europe. Short version: Russia has decided that independence for Kosovo is probably inevitable, and has decided to milk it for maximum benefit to Russia. Putin’s saying, fine, independence for Kosovo — but then apply “universal principles”, and give independence to the Russian-supported breakaway republics of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and TransDnistria.

Once you get past the initial reaction (“Wow, what a jerk”), this bears a little thinking about.
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