Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

South Ossetia Faces Isolation

Harsh economic realities could force South Ossetia to make its peace with Tbilisi
By Valeri Dzutsev

Proposed visa controls between Georgia and Russia could leave the tiny mountain republic of South Ossetia in a state of virtual isolation.


The South Ossetians - who have enjoyed de facto independence from Georgia since the 1989-1991 war - rely almost entirely on trade links with their ethnic kin in North Ossetia, just across the Russian border.


But the new visa regime, which is due to come into effect next January, could paralyse the South Ossetian economy and leave the republic at the mercy of an unsympathetic government in Tbilisi.


The separatist movement in South Ossetia was triggered by the growth of Georgian nationalism in the late 1980s. Strangely enough, there had been no history of strained relations between the two peoples prior to this. In fact, mixed marriages were common, most Ossetians spoke Georgian and there were small Ossetian settlements scattered across the Soviet republic.


But, when Georgia declared its independence from the USSR, the South Ossetian autonomous oblast declared its independence from Tbilisi, claiming it had been singled out as "the enemy within" and had little chance of preserving its national identity in a "Georgia for Georgians".


Georgia's first president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, immediately branded the Ossetians "traitors" and "agents of the Soviet empire", before removing their autonomy and renaming the territory "Inner Georgia".


Ossetia's appeals to Moscow for help fell on deaf ears and fighting broke out in 1989. Over the next two years, more than 100,000 of the 174,000 Ossetians living both in South Ossetia and Georgia fled to North Ossetia.


The Georgian army laid siege to Tskhinvali in 1990, shelling the capital from the surrounding heights. The South Ossetians suffered heavy losses, burying their dead in the courtyard of School No. 5 because the road to the cemetery was impassable.


However, the Georgians were forced to abandon the siege in the following year after 36 Ossetian refugees were found murdered near the Georgian village of Zari. The massacre sent shockwaves across Russia and North Ossetia where ethnic leaders threatened to declare war on the Georgian government.


Faced by the possibility of civil unrest spreading on to Russian soil, the Kremlin decided to intervene, initiating a ceasefire and dispatching peacekeeping forces to the region.


However, a long-term political solution has proven elusive. Ludvig Chibirov, the former historian who was elected president of South Ossetia in 1993, has done little to seek a rapprochement with Tbilisi. Not least because the Georgian economy is in an advanced state of collapse and trade opportunities across the Russian border are infinitely more attractive.


Consequently, in the ongoing peace talks with Georgia, Chibirov continues to stick to his guns, demanding full independence or Georgia's reconstitution into a confederate state. Eduard Shevardnadze's government, however, is prepared to offer little more than cultural autonomy with very limited administrative powers.


However, the introduction of a visa regime may change all this, forcing the South Ossetians to go cap in hand to Tbilisi and accept a political compromise.


Certainly, with a population of 70,000 and little in the way of natural resources, the mutinous republic has no chance of standing on its own two feet. When avalanches block the pass through the mountains during the winter months, South Ossetia is literally cut off from the rest of the world.


Most South Ossetians have relatives living across the border and rely on them for material support. The local economy is almost entirely dependent on sales of agricultural produce such as tangerines and tomatoes in the markets of North Ossetia. The region has also become the preserve of criminal cartels smuggling contraband into the Russian Federation.


Beyond this, the population survives on humanitarian aid from Russia and abroad - earlier this year the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development earmarked $1 million for a range of projects aimed at rebuilding South Ossetia's shattered infrastructure and restoring communal services in Tskhinvali.


And yet, South Ossetia is showing few signs of burying the hatchet. In fact, the recent appointment of Vyacheslav Gobozov, a hard-line separatist, to a leading post in the Ossetian parliament indicates a tougher stance towards Tbilisi.


Probably, the regime in Tskhinvali is hoping for a stay of execution from Moscow. Possibly this is the last show of bravado before a humiliating political climb-down. Either way, there is a sense that South Ossetia is living on borrowed time.


Valeri Dzutsev is the coordinator for an international NGO in North Ossetia


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