South Ossetia and Georgia: historic roots of the conflict

Tombs of victims of the 1991-92 South Ossetia War (photo from http://osgenocide.ru)
The history between Georgia and South Ossetia shows that the inhumane military aggression from the Georgian side in August of 2008 has profound historic grounds. Over the centuries the anti-Ossetian policy of the Georgian authorities has always been a pri

South Ossetia was viewed as a part of Georgian territory. Such a policy provoked rightful indignation and protest among the Ossetian population.
In the 19th century the territory where the Ossetians lived geographically was divided in official documents into South and North Ossetia. However, these names specified not administrative entities, but regions for settling two parts of a single Ossetian people.

Georgian governors considered the territory of the South Ossetians as an internal province of their state. However in 1791, recognising the reality of the situation,Tsar Irakly II had to admit that they couldn’t impose taxes on the inhabitants of South Ossetia, because they considered themselves free. Being unable to control the Ossetians, Georgian Tsars gave their land to their principals in possession.

At the beginning of the 18th century the united forces of the Georgian principals went through South Ossetia with fire and sword, destroying many villages, 80 military towers and taking many civilians as prisoners.

In January of 1851 the governing Senate of the Russian Empire recognised the independence of the southern regions of Ossetia from Georgian governors. In September 1852 the Senate approved that decision.

After the fall of the Russian Empire the South Ossetians faced the question of national and state self-determination. Four congresses of the Ossetian people, between April and November 1917, took corner-stone decisions which were never violated and were respected by all parties even during the Civil war: Ossetia had integrated territory and policy and Ossetia was part of the Russian state.

Moreover, at those congresses a decision was adopted to form executive agencies of Ossetia. The United Ossetian National Council, elected by the Congress of the Ossetian people became the authority in the north, while in the south, it was the South-Ossetian National Council elected by delegates from the Congress of South-Ossetia.

The All-Ossetian United Committee was in charge of their coordination. The Ossetian National Council was a democratic many-party authority. It ruled Ossetia until the issue of the Russian state and political structure had been resolved.

On May 26, 1918 the decree on Georgia’s independence was adopted. The provinces of Tiflisi and Kutaisi together with Ossetian territories were proclaimed the territory of the Democratic Republic of Georgia. Georgian army units and the German army, which was Georgia’s ally at that time, entered Tskhinval.

In the beginning of 1919 the Georgian authorities set a primary goal to enslave the Ossetian people and deprive them of any rights.   Those actions were based on assumption that “there is no South Ossetia, but there is a single Georgia”. The Georgian leader Noy Geordania put a demand “to make an immediate firm move and stop the construction of the Roki tunnel” (this road connects the northern and southern parts of Ossetia) to prevent unification of South and North Ossetia.

On the 12th and 13th of May 1919 Georgian troops re-entered South Ossetia, occupied its territory and destroyed the democratically elected National Council of South Ossetia.

In May 1920 South Ossetians, considering their social-democratic right for self-determination, and the guidelines of the first four congresses of the Ossetian people, took another attempt to fairly solve the issue of the divided nation.

In response, on the 12th of June 1920 the Georgian regime of Noy Geordania sent troops to South Ossetia, and launched a punitive action, which scoped to genocide.

Different strategies were used to cleanse the territory of the Ossetian people. In the view of Georgian politicians, the tactics of “the burned land” was most successful. It was pursued in the mountain area, the main centers of peasantry movement. The Georgian troops targeted the destruction of all the populace and therefore they burned communities. The second strategy focused on intimidation: a selective extermination of those who resisted, counting on their relatives and fellow-villagers to take flight. This strategy was good for the areas with mixed population. The third strategy was ethnic cleansing, in other words, deportations of Ossetians from their settlements. Gradually, this territory came to be inhabited by a Georgian population.    

As a result of the military operations carried out by the Georgian side between 1918 and1920, more than five thousand were killed or perished on their escape route. More than 25,000 South Ossetians had to seek refuge in North Ossetia.  Around 50, 000 were forced from their old lands, causing the death of 30 per cent of the Ossetian population. 

In 1922, despite the will of the Ossetian people, South Ossetia was included in the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic with the status of the South-Ossetian autonomous region. North Ossetia remained in the Russian Federation. In fact, a single Ossetia became divided politically, administratively and economically.

For decades South Ossetia, comprising part of the USSR, tried to raise the issue of joining Russia. The Georgian authorities, in their turn, tried to liquidate the autonomy of South Ossetia. 

In late 1980’s and early 1990’s the political elite and population hoped to improve the national policy. However, Georgia’s internal policy didn’t change and it continued to be oriented at ethnic, social and national values and strict ethnic directives. 

From November 1989 until June 1990 Georgia decided to annul the legislative documents of the Soviet period. In fact, those decisions cancelled the autonomy of the republic. However, they also took South Ossetia out of the legislative space of Georgia, where it was located only in the Soviet period of its history from 1922 till 1990

In November of 1989 South Ossetia took the decision to form an autonomy. During a meeting in the village of Eredvia, the Georgian leader Zviad Gamsahurdia called for “sweeping Ossetians out through the Roksky tunnel with the Georgian broom”   On the 23d November 1989, 40-thousand armed people headed to South Ossetia. The leaders of the national movement and the Georgian communist party were at the helm. Having no access to Tskhinval, militants had been besieging the city for half a year, and they committed outrages in rural regions of the republic. Here is an extract from a police report in South Ossetia:“In the evening of the 16th of December ,1989, in the village of Kekhvi located in the Tskhinval region, police units sent from other Georgian regions stopped transport vehicles, forced out citizens of Ossetian nationality and handed them over to extremists. Having detained 16 people, they subjected them to inhuman tortures: made them enter icy cold water and crawl naked on the snow. They cut their moustache and made them swallow it.”

The situation worsened in the autumn of 1990 when extreme Georgian nationalists came to power and proclaimed the independence of Georgia: besides armed provocations there was also an economic, transport and information blockade and the direct destruction of social infrastructure.

On the 20th 1990 at the session of the people deputes the parliament of the autonomy voted for its independence within the USSR. On the 21st December 1991 the Supreme Council of the republic adopted the Declaration on independence of the Republic of South Ossetia. It completely stopped participating in the internal political life of Georgia.

On the 6th January 1991 Georgian troops occupied South Ossetia, having seized Tskhinval. The city surrendered to a 6000 strong unit of Georgian militants. Having occupied all life-support infrastructure, blocked all roads, switched-off electricity and destroyed the pipeline, they began to kill Ossetians. The 7th of January 1991 is henceforth called “Bloody Christmas” by the Tskhinval citizens. In different areas of the city Georgian “policemen” opened fire on unarmed people. A few people died and dozens were injured. Facing repulse by the self-defence forces of the city, the policemen had to leave Tskhinval, having occupied the commanding heights. They then shelled residential areas of the city with heavy artillery and missile launchers.   The terror actions organised in South Ossetia ended with the massacre of civilians, and looting and burning of Ossetian communities. The militants of the Georgian “Mhedrioni” organisation acted with a particular cruelty.   

On the 20th of May 1992 a most outrageous crime against the Ossetian people took place. On the Zarsk road, which, in the period of the blockade and war became the only “road of life”, Georgian extremists ambushed and shot a convoy of vehicles which drove peaceful unarmed civilians from Tskhinval. 33 people died, more than 30 were seriously injured. Among the dead were 19 women, children and elderly.  Most injured were women and children. The law enforcement agencies of Georgia did nothing to find those who committed that cruel crime.

The war against South Ossetia lasted until 1992, when peacekeepers entered the territory of the republic in compliance with a four-party Agreement (Russia, Georgia, Northern and South Ossetia) concerning the principles of the Georgian-Ossetian conflict settlement.  The total number of victims of the genocide and military expansion against the Republics of South Ossetia between 1991–1992 equals more than 2000 killed, more than 3500 injured and more than 120 missing.   117 settlements were set on fire. In the territory of South Ossetia and the Russian Federation there were more than 20,000 refuges from South Ossetia and more than 100,000 Ossetians made refugee from Georgia.

On the 24th of June 1992 a Communiqué was signed in compliance with agreements made between Boris Yeltsin and Eduard Shevarnadze at a meeting in Sochi. The major statement of that Communiqué was cessation of hostilities and the formation of a joint Control Board and joint forces for “peace and order enforcement”.  Undoubtedly, other articles of the “Agreement” were also important, in particular – the demilitarization of the conflict zone. 

More than 15 years after the signing of the Sochi agreements, and the achievement of a reconciliation in South Ossetia, despite some difficulties, a relative stability had been preserved. Gradually, the relations destroyed by the war had been restored.  Negotiations within the framework of the joint board gave hope for strengthening that trend.  On the 16th of May 1996, a memorandum on security and strengthening of mutual trust was signed. It became not only a legal document, but a major political act, which set up the intentions of the sides to look for a “political settlement” of the Georgian-Ossetian conflict.