[H. Joseph Ware]

The Ossetians differ from their Caucasian neighbors in ethnic background, language, and religion. It is held by some that the Ossetians are originally descended from an Alani tribe dating back to Scythians/Samartian influence in the region from the late B.C.E. to the
early C.E. (Ansidze, et al, 588). They speak an Indo-European language, not the Caucasian tongues of their neighbors. Of course, the question of ethnicity is difficult,

South Ossetiabecause of evidence of intermarriage, as well as Ossetian claims of being related to the Georgian royal family, and some propose that the Ossetians were merely “descendants of one of the autochthonous groups from the Caucasus”, who inherited their Indo European language from the Alani’s travels through the region (Allen, 103, Ansidze, et al, 588). Suffice it to say that, today, both South Ossetians and their neighbors consider the Ossetians a distinct ethnicity—one that does not fit neatly within a larger Caucasian ethnicity (Higgins and O’Reilly, 568). For some time, Ossetia, and South Ossetia particularly, has been a majority Christian enclave in largely Muslim territory. Although North Ossetia is majority Muslim today, South Ossetia remains primarily Russian Orthodox (ibid., 569). Ossetia’s exposure to Christianity began in the 8th century C.E., when they were evangelized by Byzantine missionaries (Allen, 80).

Today, Ossetia is split across international boundaries into two political units: North Ossetia, an autonomous republic in the Russian Federation, and South Ossetia, which is claimed by Georgia, but is an independent state recognized by Russia and a few other sovereign powers. However, Ossetians like to think of themselves as belonging to one region, undivided by international boundaries (Higgins and O’Reilly, 569).

Originally self-governed by chiefs, Ossetia was part of the mountain kingdom of Alaneti with the tribes of Kabarda and Cherkezeti during the 11th century (Allen, 85). David II (“the rebuilder”) of Georgia extended his country’s power over Ossetia in the beginning of the 12th century (Lang, 112).  Ossetia held a privileged place in the history of this exceptional state, with the Georgian Queen Tamar, whose mother was an Ossetian princess herself, marrying David Soslan, an Ossetian prince (Allen, 103, Lang, 114).

With the collapse of the Georgian Kingdom in the 15th century after stresses from the Mongols, among other things, the region became a contest between the Otttoman Empire and the Persian Empire (Wikipedia). Ossetia passes out of mention in the history books; although, it, among other places, was devastated in the six year war (1623-1629) between the Persian Shah Abbas and his lieutenant Giorgi Saakazde, who protested his ruler’s plan to remove and exterminate the people of Kartli. Deportations are not new to this region (Allen, 167-8).

Russia has controlled North Ossetia since the 18th century; however, its hold on South Ossetia is more recent, dating to its 1801 acquisition of Georgia (Higgins and O’Reilly, 569). Perhaps due to a shared faith, Russia had little trouble establishing control over the South Caucasus, including Ossetia. As Russia struggled throughout the 19th century to do the same in the largely Muslim North Caucasus, it seems to have regarded the Ossetians as real allies (Rezvani, 421). There is one recorded exception, perhaps that which proves the rule. In 1812, the same year the Napoleon invaded Russia, Ossetia, frustrated by worsening starvation and overbearing Russian military interference in the region, joined its Muslim neighbors in a short lived revolt against conditions under Russian rule (Allan, 218).

Peace between Russia and Ossetia was restored and lasted until the 1918 revolution, when South Ossetia came under the aegis of the Menshevik First Georgian Republic. There were significant tensions between South Ossetians and the First Georgian Republic, who suspected the Ossetians of being “fifth columnists”. In 1920, South Ossetia declared its independence from the First Georgian Republic, only to be reabsorbed into Soviet Russia after the Mensheviks were defeated in 1921. South Ossetia was made an autonomous oblast in the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic. Leaders from both North and South Ossetia protested the division of Ossetia across different socialist republics, but to no avail (Higgins and O’Reilly, 569-70).

During the early Soviet years, Ossetia went through experiences similar to those of other Soviet regions in the period. Apparently by 1929 the collectivization of agriculture had proceeded with some success in Ossetia (Suny, 245). In 1933, the Soviets determined that the Ossetian party structure had failed to properly address the problem of kulaks, which resulted in a purge (ibid., 247).

Stalin did not target the Ossetians for collaboration at the end of the Second World War, as he did many other Caucasian groups. Thus, the Ossetians escaped Stalin’s 1944 mass deportations of Chechens, Daghestanis, and Ingushetians. This stoked already existing ethnic resentments and a growing sense of Russian preference for the Ossetians over the other mountain peoples (Kasaev). This was despite a Russian policy which heavily privileged Georgian cultural and national development over that of the Ossetians and neighboring Caucasian ethnic groups (Suny, 290).

Towards the end of Soviet rule, South Ossetians began to campaign more vigorously for status as an autonomous republic, instead of an oblast, which had less local control (Higgins and O’Reilly, 570). Additionally, the South Ossetians had, for years, resisted both Georgian and Russian interference in their internal affairs (Suny, 307). Thus, they were well poised to take initiative when the Soviet Union began to collapse.

In 1989, news began to circulate stating that Georgia was planning to require Georgian as the only official language. Since only 14 percent of South Ossetians were functionally literate in Georgian, this fanned the flames of the move towards greater autonomy. Georgians and Ossetians clashed in Tskhinvali in November of 1989. In 1990, Georgia banned regional political parties, making it impossible for parties representing specifically South Ossetian interests to run (Higgins and O’Reilly, 570).

This prompted an immediate reaction from the Ossetians, who declared South Ossetia fully sovereign within the Soviet Union in September. Georgia, in turn revoked South Ossetia’s autonomous status and fulfilled the rumors of the previous year by making Georgian the only official language. Increasingly, Georgians viewed the Ossetians as intruders who didn’t belong, and taking care of the Ossetian problem became closely linked with the new Georgian nationalism. In 1993, three quarters of Georgians polled had a negative view of the Ossetians. Ossetians in South Ossetia should leave, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, the first Georgian president suggested, and rejoin their cousins in North Ossetia (ibid.).

Because of the Chechen situation and the general chaos of the post-fall situation, Russia’s ability to extend power south to Georgia was compromised. Thus, at first, it did not recognize either entity’s claims. These claims did not remain such, however. War broke out between the Georgian government and the South Ossetian separatists. Russia did intervene; this resulted in the Sochi agreement of 1993, which established a Joint Control Commission in the region to oversee economic development and to control the peacekeeping forces—Russian, Georgian, and South Ossetian—then stationed in the region (ibid., 571).

For the most part, this succeeded in pacifying tensions, particularly in comparison to Georgia’s other breakaway regions, like Abkhazia. Some South Ossetians fled to North Ossetia as a result of the war, and 35,000 remained there in 2000 (Stepanov). South Ossetia possessed a measure of autonomy, functioning as a de facto independent state guaranteed in no small way by the presence of Russian troops. South Ossetia remained an important throughway for trade, both legal and otherwise with Russia (Higgins and O’Reilly, 571).

As Russia emerged from anvil of the 90s newly confident in its abilities, Georgia found itself with a pro-Western president, Mikhail Saakashvili, convinced that if Georgia could not unite the breakaway republics, its national identity was in crisis. These trends convened with a third—continued agitation on the part of South Ossetians for greater independence, including an agreement signed with North Ossetia in 2005 to restate their desire for Unification. Georgia began to interfere with trade in South Ossetia by closing local (ibid.).

In April 2008, President Putin of Russia signed a decree opening political, economic, and social relations with Abkhazia and South Ossetia. There were numerous clashes over the summer of 2008, with fatalities on both the Georgian and South Ossetian sides. This culminated in the now infamous 2008 War, which began when Georgia invaded South Ossetia on August 8th, eventually occupying Tsinkhvali, in the name of restoring constitutional order to the area. Russia immediately responded with an attack on Georgia in toto, bombing several of Georgia’s cities, blockading its coast and destroying most of its navy, and sending troops into South Ossetia itself. Georgia was unable to effectively resist this onslaught and was forced to withdraw from the area. On August 15 and 16, it signed a ceasefire with Russia negotiated with the assistance of France and the United States (Ibid., 571-573). Russia immediately recognized South Ossetia as an independent nation, a move that was soon followed by Venezuela and Nicaragua (BBC).

South Ossetia today is ruled from its capital city of Tsinkhvali by acting president Vadim Brovtsev (Wikipedia). It has a population of about 70,000, and relies on Russia for substantial aid in rebuilding an economic infrastructure destroyed by war (Delyagin).


Works cited:

  • Ivan Nasidze, Dominique Quinque, Isabelle Dupanloup, Sergey Rychkov, Oksana Naumova, Olga Zhukova, and Mark Stoneking, “Genetic Evidence Concerning the Origins of South and North Ossetians”, Annals of Human Genetics, 68 (6) (2004): 588-599.
  • W. E. D. Allen, A history of the Georgian people; from the beginning down to the Russian conquest in the nineteenth century. New York: Barnes & Noble (1971).
  • Noelle Higgins, and Kieran O’Reilly. “The Use of Force, Wars of National Liberation and the Right to Self-determination in the South Ossetian Conflict”. International Criminal Law Review. 9 (3) (2009): 567-583.
  • David Marshall Lang, The Georgians, New York: Praeger (1966).
  • Wikipedia, “Georgia (country), (2012).” (accessed April 2, 2012).
  • B. Rezvani, “The Ossetian-Ingush confrontation: Explaining a horizontal conflict”, Iran and the Caucasus, 14 (2) (2010): 419-429.
  • Ronald Grigor Suny, The making of the Georgian nation, Bloomington: Indiana University Press in association with Hoover Institution Press, Stanford University, Stanford, CA (1988).
  • Alan Kasaev, “Ossetia-Ingushetia”, U.S. and Russian policymaking with respect to the use of force, Jeremy R. Azrael, and Emil Payin, Santa Monica, CA: RAND (1996).
  • Valery Stepanov, “Ethnic tensions and separatism in Russia”, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 26 (2) (2000): 305-332.
  • BBC, “Regions and territories: South Ossetia,” Last modified November 30, 2011, Accessed April 2, 2012.
  • Mikhail Delyagin, Russia in Global Affairs, “A Testing Ground for Modernization and a Showcase of Success,” Last modified March 8, 2009,. Accessed April 2, 2012.