25 years after the recognition of the independence of South Ossetia, it is vitally important to determine what policy Russia should adhere to in this region to minimize tensions.
A commemorative event dedicated to the 7th anniversary of the Russo-Georgian conflict. Photo: RIA Novosti
With South Ossetia having celebrated the 25th anniversary of its independence last Sunday, opinions on the matter are divided. Optimists cheer Russia's newfound assertiveness and unbreakable friendships in the region, while pessimists point out the huge financial and political costs that Moscow's geostrategic successes in the Caucasus have incurred.
Regardless of Russia's attitude towards this "strange state" on its southern borders, South Ossetia is of interest as a political phenomenon of post-Soviet history. South Ossetia has been paid far less attention to than Abkhazia. In fact, these two phenomena are usually separated by nothing more than a comma. But the differences between Abkhazia and South Ossetia are no fewer than the similarities.
First, South Ossetia, unlike Abkhazia, was compelled to become a separatist territory. In contrast to the intellectual and social movement in the Abkhaz Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, there was no widespread discontent inside South Ossetia about being part of Georgia.
Even in Joseph Stalin's time, Abkhazians protested against being considered a part of the Georgian SSR (for instance, the public gathering in Duripsh in 1931), not to mention the protests that occurred during the relatively liberal years (compared to the Great Terror) from the 1950s to the 1970s.
Approximately every ten years in the Soviet period (1967, 1977-1978, 1989), Abkhazia saw the rise of protest movements and petition campaigns.
South Ossetia, meanwhile, was much better integrated into Georgia, and Ossetians themselves likewise into Georgian society. The popular memory of the tragic events of June-July 1920 (when pro-Bolshevik Ossetians were brutally suppressed by Georgia's Menshevik government) was mobilized only in the late 1980s.
Prior to that, the tragedy was written and spoken about primarily as a crime by the country's Menshevik government, and was not attached to the Georgian nation as a whole.
The majority of Ossetians in the Georgian SSR lived outside of South Ossetia. The autonomous region itself was home to about 63,200 people, while around 100,000 Ossetians lived abroad.
They were the fifth largest ethnic community in the country (after Georgians, Armenians, Russians and Azerbaijanis), and exceeded the number of Abkhazians squeezed into the Abkhaz ASSR. Before the outbreak of hostilities in the 1990s, Ossetians lived mainly in Tbilisi (33,318), Gori (8,222) and Rustavi (5,613).
Hence, Tbilisi was far more likely to avoid the excesses that Abkhazia was prone to. But Georgia's leaders, the self-proclaimed creators of the Georgian national project, did everything they could to ensure that these excesses arose. Moreover, issues of "ethnic safety", blurring at times with "ethnic purity," became the dominant theme in speeches delivered by the future founding fathers of independent Georgia.
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All this was happening against the backdrop of the "toponymic war" (it was proposed that South Ossetia be renamed Samochablo, after the historical Georgian region that once existed inside Shida Kartli).
An information campaign was accompanied by the effective expulsion of Ossetians from places they densely populated, namely Gori, Pankisi, Borjomi, Bakuriani and Rustavi. It was then that South Ossetia became an outpost not only for local Ossetians, but also for all Ossetians in Georgia.
Second, after the 1990-1992 conflict, relations between South Ossetia and Georgia were not completely frozen (unlike between Abkhazia and Georgia). As correctly noted by Carnegie Endowment expert Thomas de Waal, before 2004 "South Ossetia was part of Georgia's economic space, and Ossetians and Georgians lived and traded freely with each other."
The famous Ergneti market was not the only joint venture. It is possible to remember traveling from Vladikavkaz to Tskhinvali by taxi (including through Georgian villages) for 600 rubles. Hence, unlike Abkhazia, Tbilisi after the military conflict had every chance of resolving the conflict and keeping hold of South Ossetia.
That fact may have inadvertently played a cruel trick on Tbilisi, creating the illusion that the South Ossetian question was simply a matter of "pacifying the Adjarian lion" Aslan Abashidze [a political figure and leader of the Adjara Autonomous Republic in western Georgia - Editor's note] .
However, the desire of Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili's team to "unfreeze" the conflict in 2004 and cause more bloodshed impeded not just the peace process (incidentally, it would not be amiss today to remember the peacemaking dividend that allowed residents of South Ossetia to travel to Tbilisi by car and Georgians to trade at markets in South Ossetia).
Head of the Presidential Department on Socio-Economic Cooperation with CIS countries and the republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia Oleg Govorun (second left) and President of South Ossetia Leonid Tibilov (center) at a gala parade devoted to the 25th anniversary of South Ossetia's independence. Photo: RIA Novosti
It also pushed South Ossetia away from Georgia with renewed vigor. What happened in August 2008 was the logical continuation of the policy begun by Saakashvili in May 2004.
Third, South Ossetia today differs significantly from Abkhazia in terms of its future prospects. Whereas the Abkhazian elite, which views Russia as a partner and the guarantor of its independence, appeals to the nation-state project, South Ossetia's leaders would prefer to merge with Russia's North Ossetia into a single constituent entity of Russia.
The specifics outlined above have prompted many Western experts (including the renowned Caucasus experts Charles King and Svante Cornell) to declare that South Ossetia, unlike Abkhazia, is not viable as a state. However, this skeptical approach (which isn't entirely unjustifiable) overlooks an important nuance.
South Ossetia's near total dependence on Russia does not alter the fact that the Georgian government has lost the struggle for the region and its people. And this loss occurred much earlier than August 2008: the Russo-Georgian conflict.
It was brought about by the Georgian politicians Zviad Gamsakhurdia and the aforementioned Saakashvili, as well as their inner circle of intellectuals who championed the notion of Georgia's "ancestral" Samachablo, referring to the results of a census taken in 1897 (when Ossetians in Tskhinvali were not the largest ethnic group).
This was all done in lieu of searching for mechanisms to harmonize the ethnic situation in South Ossetia. It is in this context that the "unwilling separatists" (many of whom were genuinely fond of Georgia) made their choice in favor of Russia with all its flaws.
What else could they do if the president of the country to which they were "assigned" stated publicly that, "In Georgia there are Ossetians, but no Ossetia"? The miserable prospects for South Ossetia's "statehood" in no way mitigate Georgia's responsibility for what happened. Tbilisi did everything possible to achieve such an outcome.
To lack viability as a state and to return to Georgia's fold are not the same thing. Post-2008, Georgia's place was taken by Russia, a much larger and stronger country. Can it provide a more attractive alternative? Will it make mistakes, believing that South Ossetians have made their choice forever?
The next quarter-century should be long enough to find answers to these questions. But there is a simple rule that needs to be understood today: ethno-political processes have no eternal friends and no eternal reference points, while their attractiveness to partners needs to be proved on a daily basis.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.