General background to the conflict
The underlying problem has deep roots and is about the difficulties of uniting Georgia’s many minority peoples within a state. About seventy peoples live in the country with linguistic, cultural and religious differences. Many of the groups are small, while the vast majority of the population – four-fifths – are ethnic Georgians.
Nationalism within several of the ethnic groups came to the surface during the collapse of the Soviet Union, and in connection with Georgia’s independence in the early 1990s, both South Ossetia and Abkhazia declared themselves independent states.
Civil war then broke out between the central government, Georgia, which wanted to retain the territories, and the two breakaway republics, which took place during the first years of the 1990s. Thousands of people died and hundreds of thousands were driven into exile within the country; above all, it was Georgians who left the breakaway republics and fled into Georgia itself. Armistices were concluded with both regions, with South Ossetia in 1992 and with Abkhazia in 1994, and observer forces were set up to monitor their compliance.
The situation has since remained more or less tense and the areas have in principle been outside the control of the central government. When Micheil Saakashvili became president in 2004, he promised to put an end to the breakaway attempts, which only increased anti-Georgian sentiment in the regions.
In addition to the minority issues in Georgia, the conflict is also about the country becoming a pawn in a major political game, where the interests of the United States and Russia diverge. The country has a strategic location on the border between Europe and Asia and it is also an important link in the energy trade in the area, as important oil and gas pipelines run through the country.
President Saakashvili’s rapprochement with the West, through enhanced economic, political and military cooperation with the United States and the European Union, was not appreciated by Russia. The country’s application for NATO membership, which has US support, has further provoked the Russians, who see their interests in the region threatened. Russia, for its part, has acted as a protective force for the breakaway regions, with increasing economic and military influence.
South Ossetia is located in northern Georgia, bordering North Ossetia in Russia. The Ossetians are a Caucasian minority people who speak an Iranian language. South Ossetia was an autonomous region of the Soviet Republic of Georgia, and when the Soviet Union began to collapse, North and South Ossetia claimed to merge into an independent state, upsetting the ethnic Georgians living in South Ossetia.
In September 1990, South Ossetia issued a declaration of independence, to which Georgia responded by revoking the area’s autonomous status and a civil war broke out. The fighting lasted until 1992, when a ceasefire agreement was reached and a peacekeeping force with Russian, Georgian and Ossetian troops was deployed in the area. Around 1,500 people died during the fighting and around 30,000 fled South Ossetia. They made up a third of the population of the breakaway republic, most of whom did not return. It was not until 1996 that a peace agreement was signed, but tensions in the region remained.
South Ossetia has in principle been cut off from the central government in Georgia since then and has survived through financial contributions from Russia. Similarly, smuggling from Russia to Georgia of, for example, stolen cars, petrol and drugs has become an important source of income. After his inauguration in 2004, President Saakashvili promised to, in addition to ending the breakaway attempts, strike the black market in the area. This led to the outbreak of new fighting, but a ceasefire could be concluded a few months later.
After the Georgian loss in the short war of 2008, South Ossetia regained territories previously under Georgian control and the central government lost all influence there. Hundreds of people died and more than 100,000 are said to have been forced to flee. Even after the ceasefire, attacks and looting continued in Georgian villages in South Ossetia, making it difficult for many refugees to return.
Since the war, Russia has strengthened its positions in South Ossetia. Moscow immediately recognized South Ossetia’s declaration of independence shortly after the end of the war and concluded a friendship and cooperation agreement, which, among other things, made it possible to establish Russian military bases in the area. Despite large financial contributions from Russia after the war, however, the reconstruction of the region has been slow, which has been met with Russian dissatisfaction. Accusations were made against the then president of South Ossetia, Eduard Kokojty, to seize the grants.
Kokojty was succeeded in 2012 by a former local head of the Soviet security service KGB, Leonid Tibilov. In 2015, he brought South Ossetia one step closer to Russia by signing an agreement on “alliance and integration”. It involved such close economic and military cooperation that, according to the Georgian government, it almost meant that South Ossetia was annexed by Russia. Another step in that direction was the announcement in 2017 that the Russian military in South Ossetia would prepare to incorporate the local defense force into its organization.