South Ossetia is a Country

In the medical profession there is a term for one who refuses to accept reality and tries to behave as if things were otherwise: it is called “denial”, and it is considered a pathological condition. Geopolitics, unfortunately, is rife with it. To cite but one of many possible examples, South Ossetia (official name: Republic of South Ossetia-State of Alania) has functioned as an independent country since 1991, and no amount of pretending can change the fact that during this time it has never been a part of Georgia in any meaningful or operative sense. Nor has it become a de facto part of Russia, as is sometimes claimed, and whatever arguments one might muster to the contrary could equally be applied to any number of other countries which, unlike South Ossetia, enjoy the benefits of international recognition.

South Ossetians will never accept to be a part of Georgia, for reasons that are clear and easy to understand: over the past one hundred years they have been the subject of explicitly genocidal campaigns by Georgians on no less than three separate occasions, and in each instance they were saved from extermination only through the intervention of the Russians. The first was from 1918-20 during the brief period of Georgian independence after the fall of the Russian Empire until the country’s absorption into the USSR in 1921. Ossetians living on the southern slopes of the Caucasus were mainly peasants living under the yoke of Georgian landlords; they tended to support Bolshevism, whereas the fledgling Georgian government were Mensheviks who saw the Ossetians as fifth columnists and called for their expulsion. Many Ossetians were killed or died while trying to cross over the mountains into Soviet-controlled North Ossetia. The Georgian campaign to eliminate Ossetians from the southern Caucasus was halted only by the Soviet invasion, after which the Ossetes were granted an autonomous district (oblast) within the newly-created Georgian SSR.

The second attempt to wipe out the southern Ossetes was instigated by Georgian politician Zviad Gamsakhurdia beginning in 1989 as Soviet power was on its last legs. Gamsakhurdia publicly referred to Ossetes as “scum” and called for their extermination. In response, in November 1989 the South Ossetian government took the decision to upgrade the district to the status of Autonomous Republic. Georgian gangs then began to attack Ossetes, hoping to drive them from the region. After months of tensions, on 20 September 1990 the South Ossetian government declared an independent republic within the USSR, separate from the Georgian SSR. Gamsakhurdia’s party won the Georgian elections the following month, and began to draw up plans to attack South Ossetia. Just prior to the invasion which took place on the eve of the Orthodox Christmas on 5 January 1991, Georgian civilians were bussed out of Ossetian-majority areas to safety. Yesterday we spoke to a survivor who told of twelve Ossetians, including a young boy whom they tied up to the legs of his grandfather, who were forced to dig their own graves and then buried alive. You could see the ground moving afterwards where the soil had been piled upon their heads, our informant told us. She also related that a gang of Georgian youths took an Ossetian man and shoved him into the oven at a restaurant, where he was cooked alive. The Russian army, apparently on orders from Moscow, withdrew and left the Ossetes to their fate, at which point the Georgian-Ossetian conflict degenerated into all-out war. When the USSR collapsed the following year, South Ossetia, along with fifteen other former Soviet republics, declared itself an independent country. Intercommunal violence continued until a fragile peace was imposed through a Russian-brokered ceasefire in 1992. Georgian gangs and paramilitary forces had continued to commit atrocities throughout this period, including the murder of an unarmed 18-year-old man by the name of Grigori Sanakoyev who, after admitting his Ossetian identity to an armoured personnel carrier full of Georgians, was crushed to death against a wall—his memory is preserved by a street named after him in Tskhinval and a school in Dzau. During the course of the two-year conflict more than 100,000 Ossetian refugees fled to North Ossetia, whereas an estimated 23,000 Georgians left South Ossetia for Georgia.

Following the 1992 ceasefire South Ossetia functioned as an independent, albeit unrecognized country until 7 August 2008, when Georgia’s then-president Mikhail Saakashvili, with the tacit support of Western powers, organized yet another surprise invasion. (Witnesses report seeing Americans amongst the invading forces.) Georgian gangs renewed their atrocities, including the massacre of thirty civilian refugees attempting to flee by car—families, including women and children—who were shelled by Georgians and burned alive in their vehicles. This event is commemorated by a gruesome monument outside of Tskhinval called “The Museum of Burnt Souls”. The Ossetians held off the Georgian attack for several days until finally the Russian army intervened to put an end to the fighting. Russia formally recognized South Ossetian independence, and since that time the Russian army has guarded South Ossetia’s long border with Georgia. Hence, Russia is not seen by Ossetians as an “occupying power,” as is inaccurately repeated in the Western media, but rather as welcome protectors, much like the US forces in South Korea. Apart from Russia, the only UN-member states to recognize South Ossetia are Venezuela, Nicaragua, Syria, and Nauru.

The Western media, when they mention South Ossetia at all, characterize Russia’s intervention in 2008 as a land grab, a symptom of Russian expansionism. In fact Russia does not want to formally incorporate South Ossetia into Russia, and has not done so. Russian banks do not operate there (it is a cash economy), and Ossetian merchants complain endlessly of the duties imposed on them when bringing goods across the Russian border. Among the Ossetes themselves, attitudes towards integration with Russia appear to be split down the middle. Contrary to the images of soldiers, barbed wire and bombed-out buildings which are the only visual representations to be found in the Western media, the South Ossetian capital Tskhinval is actually a very peaceful, modern city with good restaurants, well-groomed parks, and high-quality cultural events, where people go about their daily lives just as anywhere else. But the economic situation makes life difficult for most southern Ossetes; there are few jobs, and almost no foreign investors apart from Russians. There is an excellent, well-equipped university but little future for its graduates. International recognition would certainly improve South Ossetia’s economic prospects, and would in fact be the best bulwark against the very “Russian expansionism” that, perversely, is the usual pretext for denying it. So looking into the future it is either/or: either the international community finally lets go of its delusions about “re-integrating” South Ossetia into a country (Georgia) that has done nothing but attempt to eliminate its people and accords it the recognition it deserves, or the world will force South Ossetia further into the arms of Russia, to all evidence the only nation of any consequence that has shown itself willing to ensure its survival.

Stalin street, Tskhinval

Published by Richard Foltz

Professor in the Department of Religions and Cultures, Concordia University, Montréal, Canada

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