In fact, however, South Ossetians, speakers of an Indo-European language (Iranian branch) and mostly Christian (with a Muslim minority) arrived in the Caucasus many hundreds of years ago and dispersed and intermarried among the Georgian population. Despite the inflammatory rhetoric of the 1990s, relations among Georgians and Ossetians have, on the whole, been peaceful and cooperative. The general tranquility was interrupted only by brief periods of violence that occurred at times of economic crisis and state breakdown, particularly in the aftermath of the collapse of the tsarist state in 1917, and again in the 1990s following the collapse of the USSR.

In the period of the first Georgian republic (1918-1921) before the Bolshevik takeover, South Ossetians—and Abkhazians also—were concerned about their existence in a newly independent Georgia. Many joined the Russian Bolshevik cause against the fledgling Georgian social-democratic state, but many did not. Although Georgian armed forces violently crushed the Bolshevik inspired revolts in South Ossetia, ultimately the Georgians were themselves defeated in February 1921 by the Red Army and integrated into the Soviet Union.

The new Soviet authorities in Georgia gave South Ossetia separate administrative status as an autonomous region (oblast) in 1922. They created borders that were never there before and provided South Ossetians, for the first time, with their own governing structures and resources.

Abkhazians, who shared a multinational Abkhazian kingdom with Georgians, Greeks and others for centuries, were also granted territorial autonomy within the USSR, first as a separate union republic associated by treaty with Georgia and after 1931, as an autonomous republic within Georgia. Abkhazians complain of Georgianization policies from the 1930s onwards when Lavrentii Beria, later Stalin's secret police chief, headed the Georgian and Transcaucasian party organizations. Beria closed Abkhazian radio stations and Abkhazian language schools, Georgianized the Abkhazians' Cyrillic alphabet and began a policy of Georgian settlement. At the same time, though, Georgians (mostly Western Georgians known as Mingrelians) intermarried with the Abkhazians and coexisted with them in mixed villages and neighborhoods.

In South Ossetia, integration was even more successful. Working and intermarrying with Georgians (98,000 Ossetians in Georgia lived outside South Ossetia's borders compared to 65,000 within), Ossetians nevertheless had limited language rights. In the USSR, education in Ossetian was restricted to the elementary level and Ossetians could not compete effectively with Georgians for the best jobs without proper Georgian language skills. Residentially mixed in with Georgians, it was almost impossible to draw territorial lines around Ossetian rural regions or communities in the cities.

Things Fall Apart: The End of the Soviet Union

Yet, when the USSR collapsed, South Ossetians claimed their "own" safe territories, defending their borders, national institutions, and popular assemblies. The paraphernalia of statehood such as anthems, flags and constitutions suddenly became important. Paradoxically, despite the USSR's own anti-nationalist policies, Ossetians had learned in schools and on local Soviet TV that nations were real, meaningful, and fixed entities. Georgian nationalism in the late 1980s reinforced this sense of difference.

Ossetian groups pressed for the expansion and consolidation of their political and cultural rights. They feared the removal of Russian protection after Georgian independence, worrying that the privileges secured under Soviet affirmative action programs would be lost.

Complicating the position of South Ossetians was their anxiety over numbers. Ossetians comprised 65% of South Ossetia (the remaining 35% were Georgian), but numbered only 164,000 in the whole of Georgia. At 3% of the total population, South Ossetians would never be able to secure much influence on national life in an independent Georgian state.

The Georgian government's abolition of South Ossetian autonomy in December 1990, after the South Ossetians declared an independent South Ossetian state, was politically foolish. The Georgian perennial fear of political decentralization—reflected in a Georgian constitution, which fails to delineate local, regional, and national rights—has deepened South Ossetian distrust of the Georgian central government. (To this day a special law defining national minority rights has not been passed by the Georgian parliament, although the constitution guarantees equal rights.)

Georgia's first post-Soviet President Zviad Gamsakhurdia, a former literary critic and prominent Soviet-era dissident, proved inexperienced and overtly chauvinistic. With threatening rhetoric, he only encouraged South Ossetian anxieties.

Residential unmixing and ethnic segregation involving Georgians and Ossetians accelerated. South Ossetians outside South Ossetia in Gori, Tbilisi, and elsewhere were forced to sell their homes and move out under Georgian nationalist pressures. Rising crime and unsupervised paramilitaries intensified the feeling of insecurity.

The conflict over sovereignty claims in South Ossetia from 1989-1992 broke out into urban warfare, with over 1,000 killed and many others injured or displaced. Quasi-order was restored in South Ossetia with the Russian brokered Sochi agreement of June 1992. However, the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) and UN precipitously and mistakenly, as it turned out, handed over the entire mess to Russian peacekeepers (officially a Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) member mission). The Russian peacekeepers exacerbated the conflict by backing the South Ossetians—and the Abkhazians too—and obstructed any attempts at a solution. UN and OSCE observers in both regions were sidelined.

The bloodshed of the early 1990s created lasting bitterness on all sides. But to argue that the conflicts reflected historical enmity is ahistorical and simplistic. Such arguments are a useful tool for populists and an excuse for permanent partition, but hardly truthful. In reality, although there was distrust between Georgians and South Ossetians throughout the 1980s, the violence in the 1990s and again in 2008, was engineered by populist politicians and supporting intellectuals (both Georgian and non-Georgian), by Russian pro-Soviet political activists resentful of the Union's decline, and by Georgian, Abkhazian, and South Ossetian paramilitaries eager to exploit their power while the opportunity lasted.

After the physical conflicts end, distrust is deep. But there is always room for reconciliation on the ground based on what are commonly called "confidence-building measures." Despite political rogues and unabashed nationalist rhetoric in the 1990s Georgians and South Ossetians in the villages and small towns continued to work and trade with one another.

However, in the 1990s, the conflict dynamic changed. Now smugglers, soldiers, nationalist politicians and Russian "peacekeepers" all became invested in the preservation of conflict. Georgian and South Ossetian villagers continued to interact, but no matter how much they desired peace, power was not in their hands.

Mikheil Saakashvili, the Rose Revolution, and the Road to August 7

Eduard Shevardnadze, the former Soviet Foreign Minister under Gorbachev, took over the Georgian presidency in 1992 after Gamsakhurdia was ousted in a coup. He led Georgia until 2003 when it was his turn to be ousted. In his eleven years at the helm, Shevardnadze was unable to resolve the separatist conflicts, although he ended outright military confrontation and kept the conflicts more or less frozen.

Abkhazia and South Ossetia were unsolved conflicts, then, when Mikheil Saakashvili was elected President in January 2004 in the wake of the Rose Revolution, a peaceful transfer of power to a new generation of leaders promising clean government, prosperity and territorial unity.

Saakashvili's approach to national minorities and the conflict in South Ossetia has been a mix of tough talk, humanitarian aid and economic development, force, and negotiation. Saakashvili is first and foremost a state-builder. His heroes are Ataturk, De Gaulle and Georgia's own historic state unifier: King David the Builder (1089-1125). He understands that integration of Georgia's minorities into the Georgian state is essential to effective statehood, and is willing to accept a federal state to achieve it.

However, his attempt to seize the initiative in South Ossetia by force in the summer of 2004, which led to dozens of deaths, was a bad start. It intensified mutual distrust and almost ended in war. It was followed by a Georgian "humanitarian offensive" in South Ossetia, including the construction of cinemas, the opening of banks and pharmacies, and promises of restitution for property lost or destroyed during the conflict (they remained promises).

At the same time, negotiations under the auspices of the OSCE, which had helped establish the dysfunctional Joint Control Commission peacekeeping framework in South Ossetia, stalled. Georgia's offers of autonomy for South Ossetia included the establishment of a separate executive branch and a parliament, which according to Saakashvili in a speech in 2005 would "control...issues such as culture, education, social policy, economic policy, public order, the organization of local self governance, and environmental protection." There would be language guarantees and meaningful representation in the center. These offers were rebuffed by the South Ossetian government—with Russian encouragement—as not enough.

In 2006, the frustrated Saakashvili set up an alternative administration in Georgian-held South Ossetian territories under the leadership of Dmitri Sanakoev, an Ossetian and former prime minister of the secessionist South Ossetian region. The hope was that Sanakoev could persuade South Ossetians that a federal relationship with Georgia was better than a besieged South Ossetia under Russian tutelage. But Russia, ostensibly protecting the interests of South Ossetians, was obstructive and ended any serious consideration of power-sharing or negotiations.

Russia's role illustrates the ideological and political strands that underlie the Georgian-South Ossetian conflict. South Ossetia is not an open democratic system. It is pro-Russian and like Russia, authoritarian in style. South Ossetians (like Abkhazians) publicly advocate "independence," but the only realistic prospect is union with Russia. South Ossetians have accepted Russian citizenship in large numbers, though that is most likely for practical reasons, including the receipt of Russian pensions.

However, there are genuine sentiments for national liberation. Most South Ossetians wish to merge with North Ossetia across the Caucasus range which lies within the Russian Federation. Independence for South Ossetia, given its size, location, and Russia's own strategic interests in the region, is a very insecure option, but union with the much larger North Ossetia promises sanctuary in numbers (Ossetians in the northern part make up almost half a million).

Ironically, given the absence of any genuine decentralization of power in Russia, South Ossetians could probably achieve more self government within Georgia than in Russia where the President appoints the leaders of federal republics like North Ossetia.

The Future

This war was a miscalculation by all involved, including the Russians. The future is bleak. Blood has been spilt again and whatever trust was reestablished after 1992 has been destroyed along with the villages and lives of the victims. Claims for ethnically based borders supported by the Russian military have been reinforced—an unhistorical, unnatural and unproductive situation for all local residents trying to establish a decent and prosperous life for themselves and their children.

All have lost out from the war, even the South Ossetians who are rejoicing in their victory. The South Ossetian population has declined in the last decade due to economic conditions and physical insecurity. After August 2008, another 30,000 Ossetians left for Russia. Will they return?

The Russian victory brings little prospect of change: jobs, investment, or cultural development for the South Ossetians are as far away as ever despite Russian government promises. It is unclear that owning a Russian passport gives South Ossetians full citizenship rights, including the right to reside and work legally in Russia. Economic rehabilitation will be slow, and dependence on Russia will increase.

Before August, the vague prospect of de-militarization and greater democracy in South Ossetia as part of UN and OSCE sponsored negotiations was distant, but now it has been replaced by re-militarization, Russian military bases, and resurgent nationalism. It is unlikely that moderates on any side will be able to raise their voices for some time. The door has closed for decades.

The hope is that international peacekeepers will take a forceful role in rehabilitation, reconciliation, and peacekeeping, something they failed to do in the preceding decade. The solution is not reinvesting in military defense, but in economic development, trade, and dialogue, and the return of IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons) to their homes

Realistically, too much depends on the Russian leadership. Ultimately only its removal and the establishment of democracy in Russia will open the door to reconciliation in South Ossetia.

However, Georgia can make a contribution in the meantime by rethinking its nationality policy and improving the integration of its national minorities. The current emphasis on rearming and blaming Russia for everything is not productive. The example of a prosperous and democratic Georgian society sensitive to the concerns of its national minorities will be the only reason for South Ossetians to accept a lasting reunion with Georgia.

However, Georgia can make a contribution in the meantime by rethinking its nationality policy and improving the integration of its national minorities. The current emphasis on rearming and blaming Russia for everything is not productive. The example of a prosperous and democratic Georgian society sensitive to the concerns of its national minorities will be the only reason for South Ossetians to accept a lasting reunion with Georgia.


Important Figures

Lavrentii Beria: Beria was an important Georgian politician during the early Bolshevik period. He was a member of the secret policy in Georgia and was instrumental in establishing Bolshevik rule in there in 1921. By 1931, he was the Secretary of the Communist Party in Georgia, and an important agent for Stalin. In the mid 1930s, Beria became chief of the Soviet security and secret police apparatus under Stalin. He was top deputy of the People's Commissariat for Internal Afffairs (NKVD) during the Great Purge. After World War II, Beria rose to greater prominence, becoming one of Stalin's top deputies, with responsibilities in the secret police. He was present at Stalin's death, and was one of the major players in the immediate post-Stalin leadership struggle, but was arrested in 1953 and found guilty of treason, terrorism, and counterrevolutionary activity while he was organizing Bolsheviks in Georgia and Azerbaijan. He was executed in December.

Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS): The Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) is a regional organization formed after the fall of the USSR, consisting of the former Soviet Republics, including all of them except for the three Baltic states. The CIS works towards coordinating free trade zones and inter-member crime and security issues. The CIS has chartered organizations for an interstate bank, a broadcasting company, and a number of economic councils. Some of the member countries have also signed collective security agreements. Georgia has declared its intent to leave the CIS in light of the current issues with Russia.