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Georgia vs. South Ossetia: From Conflict to Major War

Ivan Simic


On August 8, 2008, South Ossetia attracted world's attention when Russian military forces entered Georgian territory, and seriously interfered in the Georgian-South Ossetian unresolved conflict. This conflict is well known to the world, yet, current Russian military intervention helped amplify the dispute. 

South Ossetia is a small region in the South Caucasus within the territory of Georgia. She has been a de facto independent from Georgia since its declaration of independence as the Republic of South Ossetia in 1990; however, South Ossetia continues to be part of Georgia, since it was not diplomatically recognized by any member of the United Nations.

Georgia was part of the Soviet Union from 1922 until its independence in 1991. Since its independence from the Soviet Union, Georgia has been facing many difficulties: first, there was civil unrest and economic crises, then came a Revolution in 2003, when then President of Georgia, Eduard Shevardnadze was ousted from power; and, finally, the unresolved secessionist conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia; Russia's allied regions. 

We may recall the genesis of the current situation which has been precipitated by the 1918-1920 Georgian-Ossetian conflict. Later, in 1922 the South Ossetian Autonomous Oblast was created after Soviet occupation of Georgia. In the eighties, the conflict was followed by rising nationalism in the former Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic, the South Ossetian desire for greater autonomy, Ossetian demands for unification with Russia's North Ossetia, and persistent Ossetian declarations of independence. 

In 1989, from ethno-political conflict, the Georgian-South Ossetian conflict evolved to civil war in January 1991. War was fought between Georgian government forces and ethnic Georgian militias on one side and South Ossetian secessionists and North Ossetian volunteers on the other, with periodic participation of Russian military forces. Russian officials including the then President of the Russian Federation, Boris Yeltsin made supporting statements for Ossetians. The war ended in June 1992 when the Head of the State Council of Georgia, Eduard Shevardnadze and the Russian President Boris Yeltsin met to discuss the question of South Ossetia. By some estimates, around 3000 people were killed in that war. 

In May 2004, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili offered humanitarian aid to both Georgian and Ossetian population in South Ossetia and promised to give the region broad autonomy; however, that did not stop violence. New conflict between South Ossetians and Georgians forces accrued in mid June 2004 when Georgian forces closed Ossetian main supply market for tax-free goods from Russia in order to stop smuggling. In retaliation, South Ossetian forces blocked the highway between Georgia and Russia. Later, Georgian forces intercepted Russian convoy with military equipment, including missiles. This interception created tension between Georgia and Russia, and the subsequent incarceration of around fifty Georgian peacekeepers by South Ossetian militants. In mid August 2004, a ceasefire agreement was signed, but just few days later, was violated. 

In January 2005, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili presented a new plan for resolving the Georgian-South Ossetian conflict. This proposal included broader forms of autonomy, including a constitutional guarantee of free and directly elected local self-governance. Among others, President 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. No agreement was signed, although the United States government and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) supported Georgian action plan.

In September 2006, South Ossetian forces opened fire at a Georgian helicopter carrying Irakli Okruashvili, the Minister of Defence of Georgia. South Ossetian de facto government confirmed their troops were responsible for the attack, alleging that the helicopter had entered their air space. Later in September 2007, Irakli Okruashvili was arrested on charges of extortion, money laundering, and abuse of power while still Georgia's Defence Minister. A Georgian court found him guilty and sentenced him to 11 years imprisonment in absentia. However, Okruashvili did not go to jail, he was granted political asylum in France.

In May 2007, Dmitry Sanakoyev was appointed by the President of Georgia the Head of South Ossetian Provisional Administrative Entity. Sanakoyev's new resolution plan earned approval from the United States government, but not Russia's. This move alarmed the de facto authorities in South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali, and without any delay, South Ossetian separatists ordered that traffic to ethnic Georgian villages be blocked, and threatened to overthrow Sanakoyev's government by force. 

In July 2007, Georgia set up a State Commission, chaired by the Georgian Prime Minister, Zurab Noghaideli, to develop South Ossetia's autonomous status within the Georgian State.

In August 2007, a new conflict occurred: the Georgian missile incident. This time incident was between Georgia and Russia. Georgian government said that two Russian fighter jets violated its airspace and fired a missile, which fell on the edge of a village of Tsitelubani, near the Georgian-Ossetian conflict zone, but did not explode. Russia denied this allegation and said that Georgia may have fired the missile on their own territory as a way of provoking tensions in the region. This Georgia-Russia incident is not an isolated issue, there were several crises, incidents and accusations in the past, including: the 2004 Adjara crisis, the 2006 North Ossetia sabotages, the 2006 Russian ban of Moldovan and Georgian wines, the 2006 Kodori crisis, the 2006 Georgian-Russian espionage controversy and the March 2007 Georgia helicopter attack incident.

On August 1, 2008, after two months of continuous Georgian-South Ossetian fighting; the South Ossetia war between Georgia, Russia, South Ossetia, and Abkhazia began. 

On August 8, following several days of heavy fighting between Georgian army and South Ossetian militants, in which around 1500 civilians, 15 Russian peacekeepers, and dozens of South Ossetian militants were killed. Russia responded by moving its troops across the Georgian border, bringing tanks and artillery into South Ossetia. 

According to Russian officials, their main aim was to defend Russian citizens in South Ossetia, and force the Georgian government to accept peace and restore the status quo. Russian officials also stated that its army was acting within its peacekeeping mission in South Ossetia, and in line with the mandate issued by the international community. Tbilisi also stated that it was now responding to Russia's aggression. 

On August 9, conflict between Russia and Georgia escalated, and on August 10, Georgian troops retreated from the capital of South Ossetia.

In relation to the current situation in Georgia, the international community issued many statements: In general, it is calling confronted parties to respect International Law, and for an immediate end to the armed clashes and resumption of direct talks. In New York, at Russia's request, an emergency session of the United Nations Security Council was held, but failed to reach an agreement on immediately halting of fighting. 

Both Georgia and Russia traded counter-accusations; whiles Georgia accused Russia for invasion of land, air, and sea, Russia accused Georgia of genocide against South Ossetians.

According to the latest development there are some pertinent questions that should be asked; these include:

Will the United States seize the opportunity in the current situation in Georgia as an excuse to invade Iran, since they are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan? By the way, Iran is right in the neighbourhood.

Will the NATO and the EU intervene, and in which form?

Will Russia use the Kosovo situation as an example for South Ossetia?

Is this war foundation of larger Euro-Asian conflicts?

It is still not quite clear what will happen next; however one thing is obvious no country will dare to use military force against Russia, especially not in isolation. 



Ivan Simic

Belgrade, Serbia 

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