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South Ossetia - Background

The Ossetians are an ethnic group from Ossetia, a region in the northern Caucasus Mountains in Europe. Its territory currently straddles the political divide between North Ossetia-Alania in Russia, and South Ossetia in Georgia. They speak Ossetic, an Iranian language. Total worldwide population is estimated at about 700,000. In the 1920s, Ossetian lands were divided between Russia to the north and Georgia to the south, creating the boundaries of present day North and South Ossetia. With both Georgia and Russia belonging to the Soviet Union, these boundaries meant little at the time. South Ossetia, with a population of 70,000, has close ties to the neighboring region of North Ossetia in Russia and once had the status of an autonomous region within Georgia.

The first major conflict between the sides took place in 1918-1920. It began in a series of uprisings in the Ossetian-inhabited areas of what is now South Ossetia. The uprisings were against the Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic, which claimed several thousand lives and left painful memories among the two communities. Following the 1921 Red Army invasion of Georgia, the Soviet Government declared South Ossetia to be an autonomous oblast within the new Transcaucasian Republic in April 1922.

South Ossetia includes many all-Georgian villages, and the Ossetian population is concentrated in the cities of Tskhinvali and Java. Overall, in the 1980s the population in South Ossetia was 66 percent Ossetian and 29 percent Georgian. In 1989 more than 60 percent of the Ossetian population of Georgia lived outside South Ossetia. Unlike other conflicts in the Caucasus, there is no clear border between Georgia and South Ossetia, and there are relatively few cultural barriers. Indeed, it can be difficult to distinguish between Ossetians and other Georgians due to high levels of inter-marriage and assimilation. Ossetians have been more a part of the Georgian state than other minorities.

During the Soviet period, South Ossetians were granted a certain degree of autonomy over matters of language and education in their territory. At the same time, however, nationalist groups in Georgia were beginning to accumulate support, leading to renewed South Ossetian-Georgian tensions, which would come to a head in the late 1980s. The South Ossetian Popular Front was created in 1988 as a response to increasing nationalist sentiments in Georgia. By 1989, the Popular Front came to power in South Ossetia and on November 10, 1989, demanded that the "oblast" be made an autonomous "republic." The Georgian Government immediately rejected this decision, leading to protests and demonstrations on both sides.The Georgian leaders did not meet the demands of the South Ossetians and went so far as to ban all regional political parties in September 1990 during parliamentary elections. Soviet leaders approved of unification with North Ossetia, located in Russia, but Georgian leaders did not. A South Ossetian declaration of independence (within the USSR) in September of 1990 was met with a firm negation from the Georgian Government.

The autonomous areas of South Ossetia and Abkhazia added to the problems of Georgia's post-Soviet governments. The first major crisis was in the South Ossetian Autonomous Region. In December 1990, Georgian leader Gamsakhurdia summarily abolished the region's autonomous status within Georgia in response to its longtime efforts to gain independence, and declared a state of emergency in the region. When the South Ossetian regional legislature took its first steps toward secession and union with the North Ossetian Autonomous Republic of Russia, Georgian forces invaded. The resulting conflict lasted throughout 1991, causing thousands of casualties and creating tens of thousands of refugees on both sides of the Georgian-Russian border. Yeltsin mediated a cease-fire in June 1992.

The June 24, 1992, Sochi Agreement established a cease-fire between the Georgian and South Ossetian forces and defined both a zone of conflict around the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali and a security corridor along the border of South Ossetian territories. The Agreement also created the Joint Control Commission (JCC), and a peacekeeping body, the Joint Peacekeeping Forces group (JPKF), consisting of Ossetian and Georgian troops together with six Russian battalions. The JCC was charged with demilitarizing the security zone in the conflict region and facilitating negotiations; it is Co-Chaired by Georgian, Russian, South Ossetian, and North Ossetian representatives. The JPKF is under Russian command and is comprised of peacekeepers from Georgia, Russia, and Russia's North Ossetian autonomous republic (as the separatist South Ossetian government remained unrecognized). South Ossetian peacekeepers, however, serve in the North Ossetian contingent.

The international community has not recognized South Ossetia's self-declared independence. South Ossetia is one of several so-called "frozen conflicts" involving separatist ethnic groups in former Soviet republics. Initially, cooperation between criminal organizations in Georgia and South Ossetia was greater than that between respective law enforcement agencies, but the situation has improved.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) agreed to monitor the ceasefire and facilitate negotiations. The OSCE has a mission in Georgia that has sought to promote negotiations between the conflicting parties, and the United Nations has chaired negotiations toward a settlement since 1993. The United States has urged the sides to make progress within the U.N. framework in areas such as human rights, civilian policing and the return of internally displaced persons.

There were under 50,000 Ossetian refugees from the conflict, most of whom have fled to the Russian Republic of North Ossetia. Many are not anxious to return because of greater economic opportunities in North Ossetia, and some have found new roles in Russia's shadow economy. Refugee return will be complicated by the relocation of Georgians into some of the areas that refugees previously inhabited.



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