Georgian–Ossetian conflict

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For the conflict from 1918 to 1920, see Georgian–Ossetian conflict (1918–20).
Georgian–Ossetian conflict
Georgia high detail map.png
Location of South Ossetia (purple) within Georgia.
Date 1989–present
Location South Ossetia, Georgia
Flag of Georgia.svg Georgia Flag of South Ossetia.svg South Ossetia
Russia Russia

The Georgian–Ossetian conflict is an ongoing ethno-political conflict over Georgia's former autonomous region of South Ossetia, which evolved in 1989 and developed into a 1991–1992 South Ossetia War. Despite a declared ceasefire and numerous peace efforts, the conflict remains unresolved, and minor armed incidents persist. In August 2008, military tensions and clashes between Georgia and South Ossetian separatists erupted into the Russo-Georgian War.

Origins of the conflict[edit]

The conflict between Georgian and Ossetians dates back until at least 1918. In the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, Georgia stayed Menshevik controlled, while the Bolsheviks took control of Russia. In June 1920, a Russian-sponsored Ossetian force attacked the Georgian Army and People's Guard. The Georgian's responded vigorously and defeated the insurgents, with several Ossetian villages being burnt down and 20,000 Ossetians displaced in Soviet Russia.[1] Eight months later, the Red Army successfully invaded Georgia.[2] The Soviet Georgian government created the South Ossetian Autonomous Oblast in April 1922 under pressure from Kavburo (Caucasian Bureau of the Central Committee of the Russian Communist Party).[3] Some argue that the autonomy was granted by the Bolsheviks to the Ossetians in return for their assistance in fighting against a democratic Georgia, because this territory had never been a separate principality before.[4]

In the late 1980s, when the perestroika policy initiated by Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, caused rising nationalism in the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) and the country moved towards independence, it was opposed by the Ossetian nationalistic organization, Ademon Nykhas (Popular Front). Created in 1988, Ademon Nykhas demanded greater autonomy for the region and finally, unification with Russia’s North Ossetia. On November 10, 1989, the South Ossetian Supreme Soviet approved a decision to unite South Ossetia with the North Ossetian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, part of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic. However, a day later, the Georgian SSR Supreme Soviet revoked the decision and on 23 November, thousands of Georgian nationalists led by Zviad Gamsakhurdia and other opposition leaders marched to Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian capital, to hold a meeting there. The Ossetians mobilized blocking the road and only the interference of Soviet Army units avoided a clash between the two demonstrations. The Soviet commanders made the Georgian demonstrators turn back. However, several people were wounded in subsequent clashes between Georgians and Ossetians.[citation needed]

By the beginning of 1990 South Ossetian forces had 300-400 poorly armed fighters, however their number grew to about 1,500 in six-months time. The main source of small arms for South Ossetian militias was the Soviet Army helicopter regiment based in Tskhinvali.[citation needed] A self-defence force known as the Merab Kostava Society began to grow in neighbouring Georgian villages. Rivalling militias engaged in sporadic low-level fighting.[5]

The Georgian Supreme Council adopted a law barring regional parties in the summer of 1990. This was interpreted by Ossetians as a move against Ademon Nykhas and on September 20, 1990, the South Ossetian Autonomous Oblast declared independence as the South Ossetian Democratic Soviet Republic, appealing to Moscow to recognise it as an independent subject of the Soviet Union. When the election of the Georgian Supreme Council took place in October 1990, it was boycotted by the South Ossetians. On December 10, 1990, South Ossetia held its own elections, declared illegal by Georgia. A day later, the Georgian Supreme Soviet cancelled the results of the Ossetian elections and abolished South Ossetian autonomy.[6][verification needed]

On December 11, 1990, several bloody incidents occurred in and around Tskhinvali. The Georgian government declared a state of emergency in the districts of Tskhinvali and Java on December 12. Georgian police and National Guards units were dispatched in the region to disarm Ossetian armed groups.[citation needed]

The George H. W. Bush administration openly supported the restoration of independence of the Baltic SSRs, but regarded the questions relating to the independence and territorial conflicts of Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and the rest of the Transcaucasus — which were integral part of the USSR with international borders unaltered since the 1920s — as internal Soviet affairs.[7][verification needed]

Timeline before 2003[edit]

1918–1920 South Ossetia conflict[edit]

The Georgian–Ossetian conflict (1918–1920) comprised a series of uprisings, which took place in the Ossetian-inhabited areas of what is now South Ossetia, a breakaway republic in Georgia, against the Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic and then the Menshevik-dominated Democratic Republic of Georgia which claimed several thousand lives.

The 1991–1992 South Ossetia War[edit]

The Ossetian–Georgian tensions escalated into a 1991–1992 war which killed some 1,000 people.


In 1996, the Ergneti market was opened and soon became the place where Georgians and South Ossetians traded. In 1996, Ludwig Chibirov won the presidential elections. A memorandum on "Measures for providing security and confidence building" was signed in Moscow on 16 May 1996, which was regarded as the first step towards a rapprochement between Georgia and the separatists of South Ossetia. This was followed up by several meetings between President of Georgia, Eduard Shevardnadze, and de facto President of South Ossetia Ludwig Chibirov. They met in Vladikavkaz in 1996, in Java in 1997, and in Borjomi in 1998. These resulted in some positive developments as the talks about IDP return, economic development, a political solution to the issues, and the protection of the population in the conflict zone.[8]

The separatists retained control over the districts of Tskhinvali, Java, Znauri and parts of Akhalgori. The Tbilisi central government controlled the rest of Akhalgori and the Georgian villages in the Tskhinvali district.[9] There was no military confrontation for twelve years. While the peace process was frozen, Ossetians and Georgians engaged in lively exchanges and uncontrolled trade.[9] The unresolved conflict encouraged development of such illegal activities as kidnapping, drug-trafficking and arms trading. Up to the end of 2003, a number of law enforcement officials from South Ossetia and Georgia proper allegedly were participating in criminal economic activities. Authorities on both sides reportedly co-operated to profit from illegal trade, as did Russian customs and peacekeeping troops.[10]

Timeline before 2008[edit]

The 2004 flare-up[edit]

Detailed map of South Ossetia showing the secessionist and Georgian-controlled territories, November 2004.
Men from the 113th elite battalion from the Georgian army are charging up a hill where Ossetian rebels are entrenched.
A Georgian sniper takes aim at Ossetian rebels.

When Mikheil Saakashvili was elected President in 2004, he made his goals clear to return the breakaway regions of Georgia under central control.[11] One of Saakashvili's main goals was Georgian NATO membership, which Russia opposes. This has been one of the main stumbling blocks in Georgia-Russia relations.[12][13]

In May 2004, following the success in another poorly-controlled province of Adjara, President Mikheil Saakashvili’s government turned their attention to South Ossetia.[14][15]

In mid-June, Georgian police shut down the Ergneti market, which was a major trading point for tax-free goods from Russia.[16][17] These Georgian actions made the situation more tense. Georgia's regional administration began to restore the alternative road to Didi Liakhvi.[17]

On July 7, Georgian peacekeepers intercepted a Russian convoy, which led to tensions between Tbilisi and Moscow.[18] The next day, around 50 Georgian peacekeepers were disarmed and detained by the South Ossetian militias.[19] On 11 July 2004, Georgian president Saakashvili said the "crisis in South Ossetia is not a problem between Georgians and Ossetians. This is a problem between Georgia and Russia."[20] The Georgian peacekeepers captured were all released on July 9, with three exceptions.[21]

Russian State Duma passed a resolution supporting Abkhaz and South Ossetian secessionists on August 5, 2004.[22]

The tensions increased on the night of 10–11 August, when Georgian and South Ossetian villages in the area north of Tskhinvali, came under fire and civilians were injured. Members of the Georgian and South Ossetian forces of the JPFK are said to have been involved in the exchange of fire. On 13 August, Georgia’s Prime Minister Zhvania and de facto South Ossetian President Kokoev agreed on a ceasefire, which was breached multiple times by both sides. During the tensions in July and August, 17 Georgians and 5 Ossetians were killed. In emergency sessions of the JCC on 17 and 18 August in Tbilisi and Tskhinvali, the sides debated complex ceasefire proposals and demilitarization projects. At the same time, they expected fighting to resume and used the truce to improve their military positions and strengthen defences. A ceasefire agreement was reached on 19 August.[23]

In an interview broadcast by Imedi television on August 24, the chairman of the Georgian parliament's Defense and Security Committee, Givi Targamadze said that Russian military was prepared to launch a strike into Georgian territory, but the raid was preempted by Saakashvili's decision on August 19 to withdraw Georgian forces from strategic positions in South Ossetia. Targamadze said the Georgian government possessed secretly recorded video of Russian military preparations along the Georgian-Russian border.[24]

At a high level meeting between Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania and South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoity on November 5 in Sochi, Russia, an agreement on demilitarization of the conflict zone was signed.[25] Some exchange of fire continued in the zone of conflict after the ceasefire, apparently primarily initiated by the Ossetian side.[26]

New peace efforts[edit]

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili presented a new vision for resolving the South Ossetian conflict at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) session in Strasbourg, on January 26, 2005. His proposal included broader forms of autonomy, including a constitutional guarantee of free and directly elected local self-governance. Saakashvili stated that South Ossetia's parliament would have control over issues such as culture, education, social policy, economic policy, public order, organization of local self-governance and environmental protection. At the same time South Ossetia would have a voice in the national structures of government as well, with a constitutional guarantee of representation in the judicial and constitutional-judicial branches and in the Parliament. Georgia would commit to improving the economic and social conditions of South Ossetian inhabitants. Saakashvili proposed a transitional 3-year conflict resolution period, during which time mixed Georgian and Ossetian police forces, under the guidance and auspices of international organizations, would be established and Ossetian forces would gradually be integrated into a united Georgian Armed Forces. Saakashvili also said that the international community should play a more significant and visible role in solving this conflict.[27]

Zurab Zhvania's premature death in February 2005 was a setback in the conflict resolution.[28]

2006 attack on a Georgian helicopter[edit]

On September 3, 2006, the South Ossetian forces opened fire at a Georgian MI-8 helicopter carrying Defense Minister of Georgia, Irakli Okruashvili, and the Deputy Chief of Staff of the Georgian armed forces, when it flew over the separatist-held territory. It was only slightly damaged and landed safely in Georgian government-controlled territory. Although the South Ossetian authorities reported that the Georgian helicopter had entered their air space and fired shots at the ground, the Georgians denied the charge that shots had come from the helicopter. Later, the South Ossetian officials confirmed their troops were responsible for the attack, but rejected the claim that the aircraft was targeted because of prior intelligence that Okruashvili was on board. "We are not interested in having either Okruashvili or [Georgian president Mikheil] Saakashvili killed, as they are helping us to achieve independence," declared South Ossetian interior minister Mikhail Mindzayev.[29]

2006 October incident[edit]

On October 31, 2006, the South Ossetian police reported a skirmish in the Java, Georgia district in which they killed a group of 4 men.[30][31] The weapons seized from the group included assault rifles, guns, grenade launchers, grenades and explosive devices. Other items found in the militants' possession included extremist Wahhabi literature, maps of Java district and sets of Russian peacekeeping uniforms. Those findings led the South Ossetian authorities to conclude that the militants were planning to carry out acts of sabotage and terrorist attacks. The South Ossetian authorities identified the men as Chechens from Georgia's Pankisi Gorge. South Ossetia has accused Georgia of hiring the Chechen mercenaries to carry out terrorist attacks in the region.[30]

The Georgian side flatly denied its involvement in the incident. Shota Khizanishvili, a spokesperson for the Georgian Interior Ministry, supposed that the incident could be connected to "internal conflicts in South Ossetia".[30]

Rival elections of 2006[edit]

On November 12, 2006, two rival elections and simultaneous referendums were held in South Ossetia. The separatist-controlled part of the region reelected Eduard Kokoity as de facto president and voted for independence from Georgia. In the areas under Georgia's control, the Ossetian opposition, with unofficial backing from Tbilisi, organized rival polls electing Dmitry Sanakoyev, the former premier in the secessionist government, as an "alternative president" and voted for negotiations with Georgia on a future federal agreement. Moscow denounced the move as Georgia's attempt to install "a puppet government" in the conflict zone.[32][33][34]

Georgia's new initiative[edit]

On May 10, 2007, Tbilisi-backed Dmitry Sanakoyev was appointed as head of the South Ossetian Provisional Administrative Entity by the President of Georgia. The next day, Sanakoyev addressed the Parliament of Georgia, outlining his vision of the conflict resolution plan.[35][36] In response the South Ossetian separatists enforced mass blockade of Georgian villages in the conflict zone and Eduard Kokoity demanded the withdrawal of Georgian special-task troops and South Ossetia’s interim government headed by “alternative president” Dmitri Sanakoev.[37]

On July 24, 2007, Tbilisi held its first state commission to define South Ossetia's status within the Georgian state. Chaired by Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli, the commission included Georgian parliamentarians, representatives of the Ossetian community in Georgia and representatives of several Georgian human rights organisations. The talks were held with Sanakoev's administration.[38]

Sanakoyev's supporters launched a campaign against Kokoity named "Kokoity Fandarast" ("Goodbye Kokoity" in Ossetic).[39]

Tsitelubani missile incident 2007[edit]

On August 6, 2007, a missile landed, but did not explode, in the Georgian-controlled village of Tsitelubani, some 65 km (40 mi) north of Tbilisi. Georgian officials said that Russian Russian attack aircraft, an SU-24 Fencer, violated its airspace and fired Raduga Kh-58 anti-radar tactically guided missile.[40] Russia denied the allegations. The group of defense specialists from the United States, Sweden, Latvia, and Lithuania stated late on August 15 that the plane flew from Russian to Georgian airspace and back three times.[41]

Events in 2008[edit]

Pre-war clashes[edit]

Events prior to August 2008 are described in 2008 Russo-Georgian diplomatic crisis.

2008 War in South Ossetia[edit]

Main article: Russo-Georgian War

Tensions escalated during the summer months of 2008. Shelling by Ossetian separatists against Georgian villages began on August 1, drawing a sporadic response from Georgian peacekeepers and other fighters in the region.[42]

On 7 August, Georgian President Saakashvili, ordered a unilateral ceasefire at about 7:10 PM.[43] After this, attacks on Georgian villages intensified.[44] In the night of 7 August 2008 Georgia launched a large-scale military offensive to put an end to the South Ossetian fire.[45] According to the EU fact-finding mission, 10,000–11,000 soldiers took part in the general Georgian offensive in South Ossetia.[46] The official reason given for this, according to the commander, Mamuka Kurashvili, was to respond to the above-mentioned attacks against Georgian villages. Kurashvili stated that the purpose of the operation was to "restore constitutional order" in the region.[47][48]

After a prolonged artillery attack, Georgian troops with tanks and air support entered South Ossetian-controlled territory.[46] Georgian shelling left parts of the capital city in ruins.[49] According to Russian military commander, over 10 Russian peacekeepers were killed.[50] On the same day Russia sent troops across the Georgian border, into South Ossetia.[51] Russia claimed to have responded to an attack on the peacekeepers base and in defense of South Ossetian civilians against what they called "a genocide by Georgian forces".[52] Russian authorities claimed that the civilian casualties in Tskhinvali may amount up to 2,000.[53] These high casualty figures were later revised down to 162 casualties.[54]

In five days of fighting, the Russian forces captured Tskhinvali, pushed back Georgian troops, and largely destroyed Georgia’s military infrastructure using airstrikes deep inside the Georgia proper.[51] After the retreat of the Georgian forces, the Russians temporarily occupied the cities of Poti, Gori, Senaki, and Zugdidi.[55]

Both during and after the war, South Ossetian authorities and irregular militia conducted a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Georgians in South Ossetia,[56] with Georgian villages around Tskhinvali being destroyed after the war had ended.[57] The war displaced 192,000 people,[58] and while many were able to return to their homes after the war, a year later around 30,000 ethnic Georgians remained displaced.[59] In an interview published in “Kommersant”, South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoity said he would not allow Georgians to return.[60][61]

Through mediation by the French presidency of the European Union, the parties reached a preliminary ceasefire agreement on 12 August.[62] On 17 August, Dmitry Medvedev announced that Russian forces were to begin withdrawal on the next day.[63] On 9 October, Russian forces withdrew from the buffer zones adjacent to Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The control of the buffer zones was handed over to the EU monitoring mission in Georgia.[64]

After the 2008 war[edit]

On August 26, 2008, Russia officially recognized both South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states.[65]

On 4 August 2009, it was reported that tensions were rising before the war's first anniversary on 7 August. The European Union urged "all sides to refrain from any statement or action that may lead to increased tensions at this particularly sensitive time."[66]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ A Modern History of Georgia, pp. 228–9. Lang, David Marshall (1962). London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson. "In the spring of the following year, the Caucasian Bureau of the All-Russian Communist Party formed a special South Ossetian Revolutionary Committee to lead an armed revolt against the Georgian government. A Russian-sponsored Ossete force crossed the border from Vladikavkaz in June 1920 and attacked the Georgian Army and People's Guard. The Georgians reacted with vigour and defeated the insurgents and their supporters in a series of hard-fought battles. Five thousand people perished in the fighting and 20,000 Ossetes fled into Soviet Russia. The Georgian People's Guard displayed a frenzy of chauvinistic zeal during the mopping-up operations, many villages being burnt to the ground and large areas of fertile land ravaged and depopulated."
  2. ^ A Modern History of Georgia, pp. 232–6. Lang, David Marshall (1962). London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.
  3. ^ (Russian) ОСЕТИНСКИЙ ВОПРОС [Ossetian Question]. Tbilisi. 1994. pp. 154–161. 
  4. ^ Peter Roudik. "Russian Federation: Legal Aspects of War in Georgia". Library of Congress. 
  5. ^ Collier, Paul; Nicholas Sambanis (2005). Understanding Civil War. World Bank Publications. p. 271. ISBN 0-8213-6049-3. 
  6. ^ "Hastening The End of the Empire". TIME Magazine. January 28, 1991. 
  7. ^ "America Abroad". TIME Magazine. June 10, 1991. 
  8. ^ "Chapter 2: Frozen conflicts". 
  9. ^ a b International Crisis Group (2007-06-07). "Georgia's South Ossetia Conflict: Make Haste Slowly" (PDF). Archived from the original on 2007-06-12. [dead link]
  10. ^ International Crisis Group (2004-11-26). "Georgia: Avoiding War in South Ossetia / Report No159" (PDF). Archived from the original on 2007-06-30. 
  11. ^ Rutland, Peter (12 August 2008). "A Green Light for Russia". Archived from the original on 24 March 2009. 
  12. ^ "Q&A: Conflict in Georgia". BBC News. 2008-11-11. 
  13. ^ "Russia opposes NATO expansion in principle - PM Putin". RIA Novosti. 2008-05-31. 
  14. ^ Charles King (2004-08-25). "Tbilisi Blues". Archived from the original on 2009-05-04. 
  15. ^ "Expectations Low for Georgia-South Ossetia Talks". EurasiaNet. 2004-11-03. 
  16. ^ Theresa Freese. "STORY: SMUGGLING TO SURVIVE". 
  17. ^ a b Theresa Freese (2004-06-16). "WILL OSSETIANS EMBRACE GEORGIA’S INITIATIVES?". CACI Analyst. 
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  22. ^ (Russian) "О ЗАЯВЛЕНИИ ГОСУДАРСТВЕННОЙ ДУМЫ ФЕДЕРАЛЬНОГО СОБРАНИЯ РОССИЙСКОЙ ФЕДЕРАЦИИ "О СИТУАЦИИ НА КАВКАЗЕ"" [Statement of the State Duma of the Russian Federation regarding the situation in the Caucasus]. 
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  30. ^ a b c "South Ossetia Announces Thwarting a Terrorist Plot". Kommersant. November 1, 2006. 
  31. ^ "Four Chechen gunmen killed in South Ossetia". EuroNews. November 1, 2006. Archived from the original on May 15, 2007. [dead link]
  32. ^ "Freedom in the World 2013 - South Ossetia". Freedom House. 24 May 2013. Retrieved 26 March 2014. 
  33. ^ Hasan Kanbolat (13 August 2008). "What is the recent history of the South Ossetia issue?". Retrieved 26 March 2014. 
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  40. ^ "Report Gives Some Details on Missile Strike". Civil.Ge. August 9, 2007. 
  41. ^ "Experts Confirm Jet Entered Georgian Airspace From Russia". Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. 2007-08-16. 
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  43. ^ "Saakashvili Appeals for Peace in Televised Address". Civil.Ge. August 7, 2008. 
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  46. ^ a b "Report. Volume II". Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on the Conflict in Georgia. September 2009. 
  47. ^ (Russian) "Обстановка в зоне грузино-осетинского конфликта накалена до предела". Channel One. August 7, 2008. Archived from the original on August 12, 2008. [dead link]
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  60. ^ (Russian) "Эдуард Кокойты: мы там практически выровняли все". Kommersant. 15 August 2008. 
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  65. ^ "Russia Recognizes Independence of Georgian Regions (Update4)". Bloomberg. 2008-08-26. 
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