Historical Russian map of the Caucasus region at the beginning of the 19th century
Fragment of the historical map by J. H. Colton
. The map depicts the Caucasus
region in 1856. Modern South Ossetia is located in Georgia and Imeria
. Modern North Ossetia approximately corresponds to "Ossia".
Democratic Republic of Georgia (1918–1921) in 1921
Creation of South Ossetian AO on historical Georgian regions in 1922
Medieval and early modern period
The territory of contemporary South Ossetia was part of the kingdom of Iberia, the latter was unified under the single Georgian monarchy in 11th-century, extending its possessions up to Dvaleti.
The Ossetians are believed to originate from the Alans, an Iranian tribe. In the 8th century a consolidated Alan kingdom, referred to in sources of the period as Alania, emerged in the northern Caucasus Mountains. Around 1239-1277 Alania fell before the Mongol and later to the Timur's armies, that massacred much of the Alanian population. The survivors among the Alans retreated into the mountains of the central Caucasus and gradually started migration to the south.
In 1299, Gori was captured by the Alan tribesmen fleeing the Mongol conquest of their original homeland in the North Caucasus. The Georgian king George V recovered the town in 1320, pushing the Alans back over the Caucasus mountains.
In the 17th century, by pressure of Kabardian princes, Ossetians started a second wave of migration from the North Caucasus to Georgia. Ossetian peasants, who were migrating to the mountainous areas of the South Caucasus, often settled in the lands of Georgian feudal lords. The Georgian King of the Kingdom of Kartli permitted Ossetians to immigrate. According to Russian ambassador to Georgia
Mikhail Tatishchev, at the beginning of the 17th century there was already a small group of Ossetians living near the headwaters of the Greater Liakhvi River. In the 1770s there were more Ossetians living in Kartli than ever before. This period has been documented in the travel diaries of Johann Anton Güldenstädt who visited Georgia in 1772. The Baltic German explorer called modern North Ossetia simply Ossetia, while he wrote that Kartli (the areas of modern-day South Ossetia) was populated by Georgians and the mountainous areas were populated by both Georgians and Ossetians. Güldenstädt also wrote that the northernmost border of Kartli is the Major Caucasus Ridge. By the end of 18th century, the ultimate sites of Ossetian settlement on the territory of modern South Ossetia were in Kudaro (
Jejora river estuary), Greater Liakhvi gorge, the gorge of
Little Liakhvi, Ksani River gorge, Guda (Tetri Aragvi estuary) and Truso (Terek estuary).
The Georgian Kingdom of Kartli-Kakheti, part of which was the major territory of modern South Ossetia, was annexed by the Russian Empire in 1801. Ossetian migration to Georgian areas continued in the 19th and 20th centuries, when Georgia was part of the Russian Empire and Ossetian settlements in Trialeti, Borjomi, Bakuriani and Kakheti emerged as well.
South Ossetia as a part of the Soviet Union
Following the Russian revolution, the area of modern South Ossetia became part of the Democratic Republic of Georgia. In 1918, conflict began between the landless Ossetian peasants living in Shida Kartli (Interior Georgia), who were influenced by Bolshevism and demanded ownership of the lands they worked, and the Menshevik government backed ethnic Georgian aristocrats, who were legal owners. Although the Ossetians were initially discontented with the economic policies of the central government, the tension soon transformed into ethnic conflict. The first Ossetian rebellion began in February 1918, when three Georgian princes were killed and their land was seized by the Ossetians. The central government of Tiflis retaliated by sending the National Guard to the area. However, the Georgian unit retreated after they had engaged the Ossetians. Ossetian rebels then proceeded to occupy the town of Tskhinvali and began attacking ethnic Georgian civilian population. During uprisings in 1919 and 1920, the Ossetians were covertly supported by Soviet Russia, but even so, were defeated. According to allegations made by Ossetian sources, the crushing of the 1920 uprising caused the death of 5,000 Ossetians, while ensuing hunger and epidemics were the causes of death of more than 13,000 people.
The Soviet Georgian government, established after the Red Army invasion of Georgia in 1921, created an autonomous administrative unit for Transcaucasian Ossetians in April 1922 under pressure from Kavbiuro (the Caucasian Bureau of the Central Committee of the Russian Communist Party), called the South Ossetian Autonomous Oblast (AO). Some believe that the Bolsheviks granted this autonomy to the Ossetians in exchange for their help in fighting the Democratic Republic of Georgia and favoring local separatists, since this area had never been a separate entity prior to the Russian invasion. The drawing of administrative boundaries of the South Ossetian AO was quite a complicated process. Many Georgian villages were included within the South Ossetian AO despite numerous protests by the Georgian population. While the city of Tskhinvali did not have a majority Ossetian population, it was made the capital of the South Ossetian AO. In addition to parts of
Gori Uyezd and
Dusheti Uyezd of Tiflis Governorate, parts of
Racha Uyezd of Kutaisi Governorate (western Georgia) were also included within the South Ossetian AO. All these territories historically had been indigenous Georgian lands.
Historical Ossetia in the North Caucasus did not have its own political entity before 1924, when the North Ossetian Autonomous Oblast was created.
Although the Ossetians had their own language (Ossetian), Russian and Georgian were administrative/state languages. Under the rule of Georgia's government during Soviet times, Ossetians enjoyed minority cultural autonomy, including speaking the Ossetian language and teaching it in schools. In 1989, two-thirds of Ossetians in the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic lived outside the South Ossetian AO.
Tensions in the region began to rise amid rising nationalism among both Georgians and Ossetians in 1989. Before this, the two communities of the South Ossetian Autonomous Oblast of the Georgian SSR had been living in peace with each other except for the 1918–1920 events. Both ethnicities have had a high level of interaction and high rates of intermarriage. Dispute surrounding the presence of the Ossetian people in the South Caucasus has been one of the causes of conflict. Although Georgian historiography believes that Ossetian mass migration to the South Caucasus (Georgia) began in the 17th century, Ossetians claim to have been residing in the area since ancient times and that present-day South Ossetia is their historical homeland. No evidence exists to back up the Ossetian claims of being indigenous to South Ossetia. Some Ossetian historians accept that the migration of Ossetian ancestors to modern South Ossetia began after the Mongol invasions of the 13th century, while one South Ossetian de facto foreign minister in the 1990s admitted that the Ossetians first appeared in the area only in the early 17th century. Since it was created after the Russian invasion of 1921, South Ossetia was regarded as artificial creation by Georgians during the Soviet era.
The South Ossetian Popular Front (Ademon Nykhas) was created in 1988. On 10 November 1989, the South Ossetian regional council asked the Georgian Supreme Council to upgrade the region to the status of an "autonomous republic". The decision to transform the South Ossetian AO into the South Ossetian ASSR by the South Ossetian authorities escalated the conflict. On 11 November, this decision was revoked by the Georgian parliament. The Georgian authorities removed the First Party Secretary of the oblast from his position.
The Georgian Supreme Council adopted a law barring regional parties in summer 1990. Since this was interpreted by South Ossetians as a move against Ademon Nykhas, they declared full sovereignty as part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) on 20 September 1990. Ossetians boycotted subsequent Georgian parliamentary elections and held their own contest in December.
In October 1990, the parliamentary election in Georgia was won by Zviad Gamsakhurdia's "Round Table" block. On 11 December 1990, Zviad Gamsakhurdia's government declared the Ossetian election illegitimate and abolished South Ossetia's autonomous status altogether. Gamsakhurdia rationalized the abolition of Ossetian autonomy by saying, "They [Ossetians] have no right to a state here in Georgia. They are a national minority. Their homeland is North Ossetia.... Here they are newcomers."
When the Georgian parliament declared a state of emergency in the territory of South Ossetian AO on 12 December 1990, troops from both Georgian and Russian interior ministries were sent to the region. After the Georgian National Guard was formed in early 1991, Georgian troops entered Tskhinvali on 5 January 1991. The 1991–92 South Ossetia War was characterised by general disregard for international humanitarian law by uncontrollable militias, with both sides reporting atrocities. The Soviet military facilitated a ceasefire as ordered by Mikhail Gorbachev in January 1991, later they were participating in the conflict on the Ossetian side. In March and April 1991, Soviet interior troops were reported actively disarming militias on both sides, and deterring the inter-ethnic violence. Zviad Gamsakhurdia asserted that the Soviet leadership was encouraging South Ossetian separatism in order to force Georgia not to leave the Soviet Union. Georgia declared its independence in April 1991.
As a result of the war, about 100,000 ethnic Ossetians fled the territory and Georgia proper, most across the border into North Ossetia. A further 23,000 ethnic Georgians fled South Ossetia to other parts of Georgia. Many South Ossetians were resettled in uninhabited areas of North Ossetia from which the Ingush had been expelled by Stalin in 1944, leading to conflicts between Ossetians and Ingush over the right of residence in former Ingush territory.
On 29 April 1991, the western part of South Ossetia was affected by an earthquake, which killed 200 and left 300 families homeless.
In late 1991, dissent was mounting against Gamsakhurdia in Georgia due to his intolerance of critics and attempts to concentrate political power. On 22 December 1991, after a coup d'état, Gamsakhurdia and his supporters were besieged by the opposition, which was backed by the national guard, in several government buildings in Tbilisi. The ensuing heavy fighting resulted in over 200 casualties and left the center of the Georgian capital in ruins. On 6 January, Gamsakhurdia and several of his supporters fled the city for exile. Afterwards, the Georgian military council, an interim government, was formed by a triumvirate of Jaba Ioseliani, Tengiz Kitovani and Tengiz Sigua, and, in March 1992, they invited Eduard Shevardnadze, a former Soviet minister, to come to Georgia to assume control of the Georgian State Council.
On 24 June 1992, Shevardnadze and the South Ossetian government signed the Sochi ceasefire agreement, brokered by Russia. The agreement included obligations to avoid the use of force, and Georgia pledged not to impose sanctions against South Ossetia. The Georgian government retained control over substantial portions of South Ossetia, including the town of Akhalgori. A Joined Peacekeeping force of Ossetians, Russians and Georgians was established. On 6 November 1992, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) set up a mission in Georgia to monitor the peacekeeping operation. From then until mid-2004 South Ossetia was generally peaceful.
Following the 2003 Rose Revolution, Mikheil Saakashvili became the President of Georgia in 2004. Ahead of the 2004 parliamentary and presidential elections, he promised to restore the territorial integrity of Georgia. During one of his early speeches, Saakashvili addressed the separatist regions, saying, "[N]either Georgia nor its president will put up with disintegration of Georgia. Therefore, we offer immediate negotiations to our Abkhazian and Ossetian friends. We are ready to discuss every model of statehood by taking into consideration their interests for the promotion of their future development."
Since 2004, tensions began to rise as the Georgian authorities strengthened their efforts to bring the region back under their rule. Georgia sent police to close down a black market, which was one of the region's chief sources of revenue, selling foodstuffs and fuel smuggled from Russia. This was followed by fighting by Georgian troops and peacekeepers against South Ossetian militiamen and freelance fighters from Russia. Hostage takings, shootouts and occasional bombings left dozens dead and wounded. A ceasefire deal was reached on 13 August though it was repeatedly violated.
The Georgian government protested against the allegedly increasing Russian economic and political presence in the region and against the uncontrolled military of the South Ossetian side.peacekeeping force (consisting in equal parts of South Ossetians, North Ossetians, Russians and Georgians) to be non-neutral and demanded its replacement. Joseph Biden (Chairman, U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee), Richard Lugar, and
Mel Martinez sponsored a resolution accusing Russia of attempting to undermine Georgia's territorial integrity and called for replacing the Russian-manned peacekeeping force operating under CIS mandate. According to U.S. senator Richard Lugar, the United States supported Georgia's call for the withdrawal of Russian peacekeepers from the conflict zones. Later, EU South Caucasus envoy Peter Semneby said that "Russia's actions in the Georgia spy row have damaged its credibility as a neutral peacekeeper in the EU's Black Sea neighbourhood."
It also considered the
Tensions between Georgia and Russia began escalating in April 2008. A bomb explosion on 1 August 2008 targeted a car transporting Georgian peacekeepers. South Ossetians were responsible for instigating this incident, which marked the opening of hostilities and injured five Georgian servicemen. In response, several South Ossetian militiamen were hit. South Ossetian separatists began shelling Georgian villages on 1 August. These artillery attacks caused Georgian servicemen to return fire periodically since 1 August.
At around 19:00 on 7 August 2008, Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili announced a unilateral ceasefire and called for peace talks. However, escalating assaults against Georgian villages (located in the South Ossetian conflict zone) were soon matched with gunfire from Georgian troops, who then proceeded to move in the direction of the capital of the self-proclaimed Republic of South Ossetia (Tskhinvali) on the night of 8 August, reaching its centre in the morning of 8 August. One Georgian diplomat told Russian newspaper Kommersant on 8 August that by taking control of Tskhinvali, Tbilisi wanted to demonstrate that Georgia wouldn't tolerate killing of Georgian citizens. According to Russian military expert Pavel Felgenhauer, the Ossetian provocation was aimed at triggering the Georgian response, which was needed as a pretext for premeditated Russian military invasion. According to Georgian intelligence, and several Russian media reports, parts of the regular (non-peacekeeping) Russian Army had already moved to South Ossetian territory through the Roki Tunnel before the Georgian military action.
Russia accused Georgia of "aggression against South Ossetia", and launched a large-scale land, air and sea invasion of Georgia with the pretext of "peace enforcement" operation on 8 August 2008. Russian airstrikes against targets within Georgia were also launched. Abkhaz forces opened a second front on 9 August by attacking the Kodori Gorge, held by Georgia. Tskhinvali was seized by the Russian military by 10 August. Russian forces occupied the Georgian cities of Zugdidi, Senaki, Poti, and Gori (the last one after the ceasefire agreement was negotiated). Russian Black Sea Fleet blockaded the Georgian coast.
A campaign of ethnic cleansing against Georgians in South Ossetia was conducted by South Ossetians, with Georgian villages around Tskhinvali being destroyed after the war had ended. The war displaced 192,000 people, and while many were able to return to their homes after the war, a year later around 30,000 ethnic Georgians remained displaced. In an interview published in Kommersant, South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoity said he would not allow Georgians to return.
President of France Nicolas Sarkozy negotiated a ceasefire agreement on 12 August 2008. On 17 August, Russian president Dmitry Medvedev announced that Russian forces would begin to pull out of Georgia the following day. Russia recognised Abkhazia and South Ossetia as separate republics on 26 August. In response to Russia's recognition, the Georgian government severed diplomatic relations with Russia. Russian forces left the buffer areas bordering Abkhazia and South Ossetia on 8 October and the European Union Monitoring Mission in Georgia assumed authority over the buffer areas. Since the war, Georgia has maintained that Abkhazia and South Ossetia are Russian-occupied Georgian territories.
Map of South Ossetia (November 2004)
JPKF map indicating Georgian-controlled areas of South Ossetia (hatched shading) in June 2007.
The monument in Tskhinvali to the victims of the Georgian-Ossetian conflict
A school in Tskhinvali after the fighting during August 2008
Topographic map of South Ossetia (Polish transcription)
Map of Georgia highlighting South Ossetia (purple) and Abkhazia (green)