South Ossetia’s unwanted independence

South Ossetians may yearn for union with Russia, but the complicated political realities of the South Caucasus make this an unlikely prospect.

Stephen F Jones
10 June 2014

The crisis in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine has been interpreted by most Western commentators as a geopolitical struggle between East and West. This unhelpful framework obscures the tangled identities and mixed loyalties to nation, state and language in post-Soviet states. It separates the conflicts from their historical, psychological and local roots. The annexation of Crimea may well reflect the revival of great power bullying, but it is also part of a prolonged crisis in the post-Soviet space concerning questions of sovereignty, national self-determination, economic resources, and the contradictory claims of history and ethnicity. 

Four secessionist states have emerged from bloody conflicts in the Caucasus in the last two decades.

The Caucasus epitomises these interconnected layers of ethnic, social, and security issues. Four secessionist states have emerged from bloody conflicts in the Caucasus in the last two decades – Chechnya, Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh. The roots of these conflicts are varied but related: all are described as ethnic yet are rooted in post-imperial collapse and state incapacity. All of them add to the conundrum of international law, on when, how and under what conditions, claims of secessionist states should be recognised.

The roots of the conflict

South Ossetia is about the size of Rhode Island or Cambridgeshire. It has an estimated population of 40,000-60,000, down from just under 100,000 in 1989, making it the smallest of the post-Soviet de facto states. South Ossetians speak a language from the Iranian group of Indo-European languages; and are ethnically close to North Ossetians who predominantly live in North Ossetia-Alana in Russia. South Ossetians have lived alongside Georgians for centuries. An intense period of conflict – mostly over land rights between the Georgian central government and Ossetian peasants – occurred during an earlier period of Georgian independence (1918-1921). A year after the Soviet occupation of Georgia in 1921, the South Ossetian Autonomous Oblast (Region) or SOAO, was established within Georgia’s borders. It recognised South Ossetians’ separate identity, and rewarded them for their allegiance to the Bolsheviks during the Russian civil war.


South Ossetia is about the size of Rhode Island or Cambridgeshire. CC Bestalex

South Ossetia is about the size of Rhode Island or Cambridgeshire.

For the next 68 years, under Soviet rule, Georgians and South Ossetians lived and worked together, intermarried, and traded together. Before the 1990s, many more South Ossetians lived in Georgia’s other provinces than in the SOAO (99,000 out of a total 164,000), which attests to their mobility and a sign of their growing integration into Georgian society. Before the autumn of 1989, when clashes between the two groups first occurred – and barely two years before the Soviet collapse – it was unimaginable that Georgians and South Ossetians would go to war. 

The Georgian-Ossetian conflict coincided with the rise of Georgian nationalism; the initial source of the populist triumph of Zviad Gamsakhurdia, Georgia’s first directly elected president, was resistance to South Ossetian claims for expanded territorial rights. The bloody conflict began with Georgian and South Ossetian militias clashing in Tskhinvali, and has been sustained for 28 years by a combination of the flawed nationality policies of successive Georgian governments, Russian intervention – initially in the guise of peacekeeping – and by Western indifference to the region. 

Western indifference

Western governments were unwilling to commit themselves to much beyond stopgap peacekeeping by an OSCE mission, which, given its minimal financing, could barely monitor the Russian, Georgian, North and South Ossetian Joint Peace Keeping Force (JPKF) on the ground. Corrupt leaders, military and civilian profiteers, the misery of joblessness, and the polarising impact of continuing violence, added to the mix that tore at the ties that had bound both communities. It culminated in the Russo-Georgian war of August 2008,The war wasn’t inevitable. It was shaped from above by outsiders in Moscow and Tbilisi taking political decisions that worked against the interests of South Ossetians and Georgians living in the SOAO.

The Georgian shelling of Tskhinvali is framed as a brutal victimisation verging on genocide.

The war left approximately 800 dead and 192,000 displaced from their homes. Many were later allowed to return, though over 20,000 IDPs remain in Georgia. On August 26th 2008, Russia recognised South Ossetia’s independence (currently, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and the Pacific island of Nauru are the only other countries to do so). The war lasted only five days, but it was a point of no return. South Ossetians will not forget the Georgian shelling of their capital of Tskhinvali; it is framed as a brutal victimisation verging on genocide, and reminds South Ossetian minds of the bloody South Ossetian resistance to Georgian government troops during the Russian Civil War. 

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It will be a long time before South Ossetians forget about the Georgian shelling of Tskhinvali CC osinform

Russia’s officials in the South Ossetian government have multiplied, occupying major ministerial posts.

South Ossetians will not give up the security they have gained, even if it is behind barbed wire. Russia’s officials in the South Ossetian government have multiplied, occupying major ministerial posts, but there is no evident resentment among locals. In fact, local support for the Russian government has increased, along with antagonism to the West. South Ossetia’s axis has shifted decisively from the South Caucasus to the North Caucasus in terms of self-identification, security, and the economy; trade with the north is preserved by a tenuous transit link – the Transcaucasian Highway – but it carries South Ossetian products through the Roki tunnel to North Ossetia-Alana. Gas supplies, originally coming from the south, are now supplied by Russia through the Dzaurikau-Tskhinvali pipeline.

A hollow independence

Yet ‘independence’ will bring little to most South Ossetians – they will be condemned to isolation, marginality, and dependence. The prospects for cooperation with Georgia, its natural economic partner, and contacts with the rest of the South Caucasus through traditional seasonal work and cross border trade, are closed. In the 2012 South Ossetian presidential elections, all four candidates declared they would not engage with the Georgian government. Local migration to North Ossetia and Russia has accelerated, particularly among youth, adding to the SOAO’s demographic decline (villages are disproportionately made up of older women).  


In the 2012 elections, Alla Dzhioyeva had victory snatched from her by the South Ossetian Supreme Court. Photo cc: Ggioty AllaIn the 2012 elections, Alla Dzhioyeva, an anti-corruption crusader against Eduard Kokoity, the outgoing president (unrecognised by Georgia and the rest of the international community), had victory snatched from her by the South Ossetian Supreme Court. Dzhioyeva’s challenge had been unexpected, and she was not Russia’s preferred candidate. Although Dzhioyeva was later given a cabinet post, it illustrated the region’s limited political autonomy, underlined by the intimidating and unchallengeable presence of the Russian military. That court decision supported the Georgian contention that South Ossetia is a not a real state, but a Russian vassal, subject to Russia’s strategic goals. South Ossetia’s borders remain under Russian control, and South Ossetian foreign policy simply does not exist. 

The Crimean precedent

South Ossetia does not have the autonomous functions of a state able to provide for its citizens, 80% of whom hold Russian passports. There is constant talk (which goes back to irredentist demands made in the early 1990s) by Putin and local South Ossetian parties for a simple solution –  union with North Ossetia. This means annexation by Russia because North Ossetia is part of the Russian Federation. United Ossetia, one of the nine parties running in the June 2014 South Ossetian parliamentary elections, has made union with North Ossetia central to its platform. It would be a popular decision. In a rare independent survey of South Ossetians in 2010 by Gerard Toal and John O’Loughlin, over 80% expressed the desire for union with the Russian Federation, and 82% wanted Russian troops to remain in South Ossetia permanently. Unlike Abkhazia, there is, paradoxically, little support for independence. 

Changing borders in the Caucasus is rarely accomplished peacefully.

However, the Crimean crisis and Russia’s hesitancy regarding the military occupation of Eastern Ukraine, suggests that Crimea might have been a special case. There are plenty of Russian Diasporas, but they are not all contiguous with Russia as in Crimea (easily accessible to Russia across the Kerch Strait). Most of them are less numerous and less residentially concentrated than in Crimea (Northern Kazakhstan is an exception, but Kazakhstan is a pro-Russian state that has joined the Eurasian Economic Union). Estonia and Latvia have large Russian minorities, but would local Russians support Russia over the EU? 

There are, in addition, potential repercussions in the North Caucasus if annexation takes place. The North Caucasus, which consists of six non-Russian autonomous republics (which contain significant ethnic Russian populations) and over 40 national groups, is crisscrossed with conflict between clans, regions, religions and republics; there are multiple border disputes – between Ingushetia and Chechnya, North Ossetia and Ingushetia, between Kabardins and Balkars, and between Kumyks and Chechens in Daghestan, to mention just a few. Changing borders in the Caucasus is rarely accomplished peacefully, and right now Russia does not want to endanger its precarious control over the North Caucasian Federal District.

Humanitarian aid is being siphoned off before it even gets off the truck.

South Ossetia’s internal legitimacy is weak. Inequality and corruption have grown visibly, and the local economy cannot provide decent education, jobs, or end mass poverty. It is estimated that since 2008, 27 billion roubles of Russian aid has disappeared without trace in South Ossetia. Humanitarian aid is being siphoned off before it even gets off the truck. Seventy government officials were arrested on corruption charges by the new de facto President Leonid Tibilov, a former South Ossetian Minister of State Security, elected in April 2013; but Tibilov cannot end South Ossetia’s kleptocracy because it is fed by Russia’s own corrupt structures. In January 2014, Tibilov dismissed his entire cabinet in frustration.

When democracy isn’t enough

After the defeat of the Georgian army in 2008, Russia gained credibility among South Ossetians, but along with military support come the burdens of imperial power – keeping the peace, sustaining a dysfunctional economy (90% of South Ossetian budget revenues come from Russia), and guarding the frontiers. The system that Putin has created – corrupt, brutal and unaccountable – is incapable of establishing stability in the Caucasus. The interlocking nature of security in the region, with constantly shifting alliances, histories and borders between local peoples, where security gains in one territory reverberate negatively in another, makes the Russian task impossible without a comprehensive strategy that includes cooperation from both sides of the Caucasus, North and South, and allows normal relations with Georgia and other former Soviet republics to the West, such as Moldova and Ukraine.

The system that Putin has created – corrupt, brutal and unaccountable – is incapable of establishing stability in the Caucasus.

The election of the moderate Georgian Dream coalition in Georgia in October 2012, and the end of the Saakashvili era, gave Russia an opening to start that process, but it is in no hurry to do so. The weak Western response to the Crimean crisis gives Russia little incentive to reset its relations with Georgia, and Putin knows that Georgia cannot expect anything more than Western moral support in case of another crisis in Russo-Georgian relations. Reconciliation with Georgia, though it makes sense for Russian security, would set off alarm bells in Russia’s North Caucasian territories.

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'Freedom for the Caucasus'. Russia has traditionally found it difficult to navigate through this volatile region. CC: rasmusols

It is puzzling, why, after more than 200 years of experience in the Caucasus, Russia is still in a strategic bind, threatened by political explosions at almost every turn. South Ossetia, after six years of ‘independence’ under Russia’s suzerainty, provides lessons for Crimea and Eastern Ukraine: the promise of economic shelter and security by Russia will likely end with increased isolation, economic decline, and continuing corruption. These undercut self-government, local control of the economy, and the promise of a better life for the region’s younger generation. Even if Russian tourism increases, the uncertain status of Crimea will discourage foreign tourists and foreign investments. 

Yet this type of sacrifice is one that many, including the South Ossetians, are willing to accept. Europe and the US cannot bank on the distant attraction of prosperity and democracy to turn things in their favour; Georgia’s national minorities, as the South Ossetians have shown, also have to be convinced that their security and autonomy is at the centre of the West’s concerns . Only then will democracy have meaning for them.

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