South Ossetia


South Ossetia
   An autonomous republic of Georgia. The region of South Ossetia, indigenously known as Khussar Iryston, existed as an autonomous oblast (AO) within Georgia during the Soviet period. Ethnic Ossetians enjoyed privileged status in the AO, and their Indo-European language was recognized as co-equal with Russian and Georgian. Under perestroika, a South Ossetian movement known as Ademon Nykhas (Ossetic: “Popular Shrine”) formed to protect the interests of the Ossetians who opposed the Georgian leadership’s move toward independence from the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and the increasingly nationalistic rhetoric emanating from Tbilisi. Ademon Nykhas proclaimed the South Ossetian Democratic Republic on 20 September 1990 (seen as the first step toward ultimate unification with North Ossetiya), prompting the Georgian president Zviad Gamsakhurdia to abolish the region’s autonomous status.
   Mutual suspicion between Ossetians and ethnic Georgians turned to violence in 1991, initiating the South Ossetian–Georgian War (1991–1992). More than 100,000 fled the region and there were upward of 1,000 deaths in skirmishes over the next year. In the summer of 1992, the Russian parliamentarian Ruslan Khasbulatov threatened Russian military intervention if the attacks on the regional capital Tskhinvali and other South Ossetian targets did not stop. The new Georgian president, Eduard Shevardnadze, met with Boris Yeltsin and agreed to a cease-fire shortly thereafter. Russian peacekeepers, supported by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), took up positions in the region, which remained relatively peaceful for the next decade.
   In 2004, tensions began to rise again. The election of Mikheil Saakashvili and his reincorporation of the breakaway region of Ajaria led to fears that Tbilisi was ready to move again on South Ossetia. Two years later, South Ossetia held a referendum on independence that nearly unanimously supported secession from Georgia. Subsequently, South Ossetian President Eduard Kokoity stated his country’s intention to join the Russian Federation, though he recanted after an upbraiding from his patrons in Moscow. Georgian criticism of Russia’s increasing military and economic control of the region (Russia is estimated to contribute two-thirds of the region’s annual budget) via its peacekeepers and mutual charges of espionage worsened relations between Tbilisi and the Kremlin.
   In 2008, Georgian military forces began shelling Tskhinvali in what was seen as a prologue to reincorporation of the province, in hopes that the United States would intervene. However, the American help did not arrive and the attack prompted a full-scale Russian invasion. After the short but decisive South Ossetian War, Russian President Dmitry Medvyedev recognized the breakaway region as an independent state (along with the Georgian region of Abkhazia); Guatemala and Venezuela later followed suit. In 2009, a deal was signed between Moscow and Tskhinvali that allowed Russian border guards to patrol the region’s frontier with Georgia proper. South Ossetia is a mountainous area in the southern Caucasus covering 3,900 square kilometers; it has a population of 70,000. The regional economy is mostly based on agriculture, with some industry around Tskhinvali; unlike Abkhazia, the region has few prospects for economic development other than its role as a transit zone for Russian-Georgian foreign trade.

Historical Dictionary of the Russian Federation. . 2010.

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