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Chapter 4 of "The Georgian - South Ossetian Conflict"



4 The Georgian-South Ossetian Conflict

The disintegration of the Soviet Union plunged the former Soviet Republic of Georgia into political chaos and civil war. One of the first areas of conflict was South Ossetia, an autonomous region within Georgia during the Soviet period and the scene of a bloody conflict in the period 1989-92.

The conflict that ensued resulted in a death toll of around one thousand people and refugees numbering tens of thousands. It has left South Ossetia separated from Georgia but still unrecognised except as a part of the Georgian state according to international law. Soon eight years will have past since the fighting stopped and a cease-fire was implemented. The situation especially in Georgia, though also in the surrounding regions, has changed, but the Georgian-South Ossetian problem remains unsolved.

4.1 Basic Facts

South Ossetia covers an area of 3,900 square kilometres. It is situated on the southern foothills of the Greater Caucasian Mountain range, surrounded by the rest of Georgia on its southern, western and eastern sides, leaving only the northern side open through a tunnel towards the Russian Federation, or to be more exact to the republic of North Ossetia within the Russian Federation.

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According to the 1989 census, taken just before the first phase of the Georgian-South Ossetian Conflict, around 98,000 people lived in South Ossetia. There seems to be agreement among both Georgian and South Ossetian sources about the total distribution of Georgians and South Ossetians in South Ossetia and Georgia proper. Both parties rely on the numbers given in the 1989 Soviet census, according to which there were 164,000 Ossetians (roughly 3% of the population of Georgia). Of these, some 65,000 lived in the Autonomous Oblast of South Ossetia, while some 99,000 lived in other parts of Georgia.

In South Ossetia, according to the 1989 census, Ossetians accounted for approximately two-thirds (66.61%) of the population and Georgians the other third (29.44%). The remaining 4% are made up of Russians, Armenians and Jews.

In Tskhinvali, the administrative centre of South Ossetia, Ossetians constituted about 74% of the population, Georgians 16% and others around 9%.

Because of the conflict, these figures have changed drastically. It is estimated that about half of the Ossetians who lived in Georgia proper moved to North Ossetia, while a less significant number have gone to South Ossetia. Some who lived in South Ossetia also moved to North Ossetia.

In South Ossetia, many Georgians have left for other parts of Georgia. In Tskhinvali Georgian sources estimate that very few Georgians remain. Those who do are mostly elderly people. According to Ossetian sources, most Georgians left Tskhinvali when the conflict started. Official sources estimate that around 5,000 Georgians have returned to Tskhinvali now that the situation has calmed. According to unofficial Ossetian sources, these figures are exaggerated, and in fact there are only about 500 Georgians in Tskhinvali.

In other parts of South Ossetia the situation is different. Many Georgians have left, but there are some Georgian villages (particularly in the north) around Tskhinvali city, which today are not only inhabited by Georgians but are also still under Georgian jurisdiction. Hence, when the parliamentary and presidential elections took place in Georgia on 5 November 1995, there were also elections conducted in these parts of South Ossetia.

Generally speaking, Georgians and Ossetians have been living in peace with each other in recent times, except for this conflict and the episode in 1920, which will be described later. The two groups have had a high level of interaction. This can be seen in the high rate of intermarriages.

Ossetians and Georgians basically share orthodox Christianity[1], though some Georgians would state that the Ossetians are not Christian but pagans. In fact, there are elements of paganism in both groups, but nevertheless they both take pride in their religion, and both toast and venerate Saint George as their patron Saint.

As languages, Ossetian and Georgian differ significantly, as they are from two different language families. Georgian is a unique subgroup of the Caucasian group and has its own unique alphabet. Ossetian belongs to the Indo-European group and is distinctly related to Iranian (Farsi) but uses the Cyrillic alphabet with Ossetian modifications. According to some sources, only 14% of the Ossetians in South Ossetia speak Georgian (Fuller 1991, p.21), and although their language is Ossetian, Russian seems to be more commonly used (Weston 1994, p.14), this at least in official structures although I personally have experienced a development toward an increased usage of Ossetian language in the period 1995-1997.

When Georgia was part of the Soviet Union, Georgian was the official state language, with some of the minority languages having equal status in minority areas. In South Ossetia, Russian functioned more or less as the official language in the school system and in public administration. Still, there were Ossetian and Georgian schools, where only one language was taught and the other ignored[2] (Saakashvili 1992, p.4).

4.2 History

The history of the area, including the history of relations between Ossetians and Georgians, has been made one of the key issues of the conflict. The central question is who came first and hence to whom does the land historically belong? If every square meter of soil in the former Yugoslavia is filled with history and legends, the same is true for every inch of the Caucasus. Several historical publications have been written by both Georgian and Ossetian historians to attempt to prove the other side wrong. As Eric Hobsbawm, a historian himself, writes: “Historians are to nationalism what poppy-growers in Pakistan are to heroin-addicts: we supply the essential raw material for the market” (Hobsbawm 1992, p.23).

The Georgian position is exemplified by the following quote: "...Ossetian settlements began mostly in the last two or three centuries (which is very recent time for Georgians)..." (Nodia 1992. p.39). This position was further sharpened during the period of nationalist leader Zviad Gamsakhurdia, who called the Ossetians "ungrateful guests of Georgia", having their historical homeland in North Ossetia (Jones 1993, p.294-295).

The Georgians see South Ossetia as one of the oldest centres of "the material and spiritual culture" of the Georgian people that has been an indivisible part of Georgia for centuries (Sakvarelidze 1993, p.25-26 and Zhorzholiani 1995, G., p.3).

They claim that the Ossetians are newcomers to this area, having their historical homeland in North Ossetia and consequently that they have no right to territorial autonomy. This in contrast to their position on Abkhazia (one of the other autonomies within the republic of Gerogia), which is recognised by the Georgians as the historical homeland for the Abkhaz, together with the Georgians, and a territory which the Abkhaz are entitled to have (Lomouri 1993, p.5).

The Ossetian standpoint is that they have been living in this area for centuries on both sides of the Greater Caucasian Mountain Range. The South Ossetians consider themselves to be the southern branch of the Ossetian nation. Furthermore they see the Ossetians as descendants of the Alans, a Scythian tribe that came to the Caucasus in ancient times and merged with the local population (Siukayev 1994, p.17-21).

Ossetians state that they and the Georgians have lived side by side for more than two thousand years. In the wars against invading powers the Ossetians always fought by the Georgians' side. They refer to the fact that the famous 12th Century Georgian Queen Tamara was married to an Ossetian (Siukayev 1994, p.9). It is also claimed that Stalin was half Ossetian half Georgian. Hence, during Khruschev’s time, when Stalin fell into disfavour in Moscow, both Vladikavkas (capital of North Ossetia) and Tbilisi made claims for his body.

Georgian sources agree that the Ossetians are the ancestors of the Alans, but they stress that this merger happened in the North Caucasus. According to Georgian sources, Ossetians first started to migrate across the mountains in the 17th and 18th Centuries, appearing first on the southern slopes and then in the lowlands of what of the Georgians call Shida Kartli (meaning the inner and unifying province of the country).

Georgian sources mention that after the Mongol-Tartar invasions in the 13th century, the Ossetians (encouraged by the Mongols) attempted to occupy the territory south of the mountains but were forced back by the Georgians. According to Georgian sources, the Ossetians began their settlement in Georgia in the 1860s in the estates of Georgian feudal lords (hence one of the Georgian names for South Ossetia is Samachablo, after the feudal Duke Machabeli). By 1880, the number of Ossetians in the area amounted to 52,000 (Sakvarelidze 1993, p.26-27).

If one can talk about a collective memory or consciousness among the Georgians it is that they see the Georgian nation as the eternal historical victim in relation to the surrounding powers, from Persia and the Ottoman Empire to Russia. From this perspective, the minorities of Georgia are often seen in the light of a possible fifth column. Furthermore the demographic conditions in Georgia, with the minorities primarily situated in the periphery, have given reason to great concern and insecurity in Georgia as to the territorial integrity of Georgia.

This perception collides with that of the Ossetians who also see themselves as victims. As the Chairman of the Supreme Council of South Ossetia (now president), Ludwig Chibirov, puts it:

"...this is the second time in one generation that we have been the victims of genocide by the Georgians; in that way our demand for independence should be seen not as idealism but as pragmatism" (From conversation with Chibirov, July 1995).

Historically, as now, the Ossetians have seen themselves as having no other choice than to look towards Moscow. As one Ossetian puts it:

"...this striving for survival as an ethno-historical entity - and identity - drove us "to side with Soviet Russia" - not our genetic love for bolshevism, sovietism and other "isms"..." (Skurbaty 1991, p.4).

Both interpretations or perceptions of this contain some validity and in this way the conflict also goes back to the first attempt of modern Georgian state-building in 1918-1922.

After the collapse of the Tsarist Empire in 1917 (of which Georgia had been part of since 1801) Georgia declared its independence. Georgia formed the Democratic Republic of Georgia, led by the Georgian social democrats - the so-called Menshevics. The country was recognised by several Western states (Sakvarelidze 1993, p.27). On 7 May 1920, a treaty of friendship was signed between Georgia and Russia in which, according to Georgian sources Russia recognised South Ossetia as an integral part of Georgia. It was named as Tiflis Gubernia and included the district Shida Kartli, therefore including what was to become the South Ossetian Autonomous Region (Oblast) (Menteshashvili 1992, p.61-63).

The Ossetian historical experience and their interpretation of events in Georgia are markedly different. The Ossetians joined Russia voluntarily in 1774, and they state that in the agreement nothing was mentioned distinguishing North and South Ossetia. Therefore when Georgia left Russia in 1918 it was natural for South Ossetia not to stay within the framework of Georgia. Hence on 8 June 1920, South Ossetia declared independence as a Soviet Republic (Siukayev 1994, p.6).

Georgia sent its army to crush what they saw as a South Ossetian uprising challenging the territorial integrity of Georgia. Russia protested this action as an intervention into South Ossetian internal affairs.

The South Ossetians saw this as a denial of their right to self-determination. According to Ossetian sources about 5000 Ossetians were killed, and 13,000 subsequently died from hunger and epidemics. The South Ossetians consider this to be the first genocide committed by the Georgians (Skurbaty 1991, p.2).

Conversely, the Georgians view this as the first attempt by Ossetians to seize Georgian territory and the first attempt by Russia to destabilise Georgia by encouraging South Ossetia to secede. In 1921 the Red Army invaded Georgia and annexed it.

One year later, the South Ossetian Autonomous Oblast within Georgia was declared[3]. Hence, the Georgians see South Ossetia as a concept forcibly and artificially introduced when Georgia was annexed by Soviet Russia following the old imperial principle of divide et impera (Sakvarelidze 1993, p.27-28).

On the other hand, Ossetian historians dedicate much effort to show that the name South Ossetia was not an invention by the Soviet Union, but used much earlier; this they demonstrate by using Russian, Armenian, Western and Georgian sources. They state that the first written source mentioning the name South Ossetia is in the early middle ages by Armenians (as for example in Gagloiti).

When the South Ossetian Autonomous Oblast was created, the city of Tskhinvali was chosen as its capital. According to Georgian sources, it was an almost completely Georgian populated city and the decision was taken despite local Georgian protests. The same Georgians remark that after the establishment of the South Ossetian Autonomous Oblast, the ethnic composition of the town changed completely:

"It happened so that this oldest Georgian town on the bank of the Liakhvi river became Ossetian” (Totadze 1994, p.49).

Against this highly contentious historical background, or rather the perceptions of it, it has been seen by some Georgians that the Ossetian issue inevitable would rise again (Nodia 1992, p.39). The question was only when and how.

4.3 The Conflict

Georgia was one of the first republics of the Soviet Union to seize the opportunity of the glasnost policy of Mikhail Gorbachev and call for independence.

The situation at the end of the eighties was characterised by a massive wave of nationalist euphoria and political turmoil, leading to independence in April 1991. The leader of the independence movement (eventually the first president of Georgia) Zviad Gamsakhurdia, based his popularity on a nationalistic agenda. Primarily, it was directed against the imposed Soviet/Russian communist rule, but it also manifested itself as Greater Georgian nationalism at the expense of the minority groups of Georgia[4]. In this atmosphere of heightened and often antagonistic Georgian nationalism, the South Ossetians felt threatened and began to organise themselves. Looking towards the situation in Abkhazia, the South Ossetian nationalists formed a popular front called Ademon Nykhas (Popular Shrine) and began to express their national aspirations through solidarity with the Abkhazian nationalists.

However, already in early 1988 popular protest unfolded in South Ossetia due to the outbreak of a typhoid epidemic, to which the city’s water system and hence insufficient administrative management were seen as the causes and at first the local Ossetian communist authorities were held responsible (interview with Alexander Rusetski, chairman of Helsinki Citizens Assembly Georgia, Tbilisi, June 1995 and Hansen 1998, p.15) This changed soon and became ammunition in the rhetoric’s of the national movement and hence attention was shifted towards the Georgians who were blamed.

In the spring of 1989, the leader of Ademon Nykhas, Alan Chochiev, published an open letter, declaring his groups support for the Abkhazian campaign against the opening of a Georgian branch of Tbilisi university in Sukhumi, Abkhazia. This triggered the first clashes between Ossetians and Georgians in South Ossetia. Furthermore on 26 May, the anniversary of the declaration of Georgian independence in 1918 clashes between irregular groups of Georgians (encouraged by Zviad Gamsakhurdia) and local Ossetians took place. But full-scale fighting still had to come. The entrenchment took the form of declarations and manifestations. Georgian preparations for independence from the Soviet Union and nation-state restoration. South Ossetians responding to this perceived threat by seeking greater autonomy, and eventually separation from Georgia.

In August 1989, the Supreme Council of Georgia put forward a Georgian language programme. Though Georgian at this time already was the state language of the republic, with some of the minority languages having equal status in minority areas, this was a tightening stressing that Georgian should be used in all public spheres of society. This programme involved not only increased use of the Georgian language, but also, for example, a Georgian language test for entry into higher education, programs for the promotion of Georgian history, the institutionalisation of previously unofficial Georgian national holidays, creation of republican military units comprising only Georgians, and the resettlement of Georgians in areas dominated by minorities (Jones 1993, p.294-295). Some of these measures are understandable in the process of Georgian state building, but in an atmosphere of nationalist euphoria and chauvinism it increased the insecurity felt by the minorities.

The South Ossetians started formulating their own intentions in response to this. In September 1989, Ademon Nykhas addressed an appeal to the USSR Council of Ministers, the USSR Supreme Soviet, and the CPSU Central Committee protesting that the Georgian language programme was antidemocratic and unconstitutional and furthermore they asked for the question of a unification of North and South Ossetia to be discussed at the CPSU Central Committee plenum of nationalities. In November, the Supreme Council of South Ossetia passed a resolution demanding that Ossetian should be the official language of the Autonomous Oblast. Moscow and Tbilisi refused this both.

A group from the Supreme Council of South Ossetia demanded that its status should be changed from autonomous Oblast to autonomous republic, changing the status to the same as that of Abkhazia. The Supreme Council of Georgia reacted immediately, declaring the claim illegal and stepped up the war of declarations by stating that the Supreme Council of Georgia had the right to veto any Soviet law which went against Georgian interests[5]. Furthermore the Georgian authorities responded by firing the First Party Secretary of the Oblast.

On November 23, 1989 Zviad Gamsakhurdia organised what he called "a peaceful meeting of reconciliation". Thousands of Georgians, in buses and cars, left for Tskhinvali. This was naturally perceived by the Ossetians as a clear power demonstration and a threat to the South Ossetians. The Ossetians blocked the road and clashes took place, in which several people were wounded.

This episode clearly aggravated the situation - armed conflict seemed imminent. South Ossetians started arming themselves and Georgians in South Ossetia started moving their belongings from their homes, leaving only things they could carry with them. Now only the final declarations from both sides would function as the starting signal for full scale fighting.

In August 1990, prior to the parliamentary election in Georgia, the Supreme Soviet of Georgia passed an election law that banned any party whose activity was confined to specific areas of Georgia from participating in the election. This law could only be interpreted by the South Ossetians as a way of cutting them off from influence and a way of showing them what they could expect in an independent Georgia.

On 20 September 1990, the South Ossetian Autonomous Oblast declared independence as the South Ossetian Democratic Soviet Republic, appealing to Moscow to recognise it as an independent subject of the Soviet Union. When the election of the Georgian Supreme Council took place in October 1990, it was boycotted by the South Ossetians. The election resulted in a victory for the "Round Table - Free Georgia" coalition headed by the nationalist Zviad Gamsakhurdia.

In response to this and as a manifestation of their independence from Tbilisi, the South Ossetians held elections to their parliament in December 1990. According to Ossetian sources, 72% of the population of the republic took part in the election, which exceeds the percentage of the Ossetian population. The Georgian response was swift. Within days the Georgian Supreme Council cancelled the results of the election and voted to abolish the South Ossetian Autonomous Oblast as a separate administrative unit within the Republic of Georgia.

Now the scene was set for direct confrontation. Following violent incidents in and around Tskhinvali, a state of emergency was declared by the Georgian parliament in the Tskhinvali and Java regions of South Ossetia on 12 December 1990. Troops from Russia's and Georgia's MVD (Interior Ministry) were dispatched and the commander of the Georgian MVD troops was appointed as the mayor of Tskhinvali. According to South Ossetian sources, the Georgian militia started disarming the South Ossetian militia with the consent of Moscow.

In the first days of 1991, the Supreme Council of Georgia passed a law on the formation of the National Guard of Georgia. A few days later, on the night of 5 January (in the days of the Orthodox Christmas), several thousand Georgian troops entered Tskhinvali and committed atrocities. According to the South Ossetians, this was apparently in agreement with the local Russian troops.

The war took place mainly in and around Tskhinvali, around it the Georgian villages and north along the road to North Ossetia, the lifeline of the South Ossetians[6]. The fighting in Tskhinvali first resulted in a divided town - an Ossetian controlled western part and a Georgian controlled eastern part. After some 20 days of fighting, the Georgians withdrew to the hills around the city. The Ossetians say they forced the Georgians out, while the Georgians say that, after a cease-fire agreement mediated by the Russian commander on the ground, they withdrew to the outskirts of the city.

This uneasy situation lasted for the remainder of the war. The Georgians sat in the hills around Tskhinvali, besieging the city, and other fighting took place around the city in the nearby villages and along the road to North Ossetia. According to South Ossetian sources 115 villages and settlements[7] were burnt down during the conflict (interview with President Chibirov, 4 September 1997, Tskhinvali).

In August 1991, in connection to the failed coup attempt in Moscow, the Soviet Union dissolves but the Russian MVD (interior) troops leaves however, first in December 1991. In late December the same year internal fighting erupts in Tbilisi between opposition and government forces. Georgian military attention is shifted towards the capital. Gamsakhurdia is ousted from power and an interim state council is created, which in March 1992 appoints Edward Shevardnadze as its chairman.

In the spring of 1992 the fighting escalates, with sporadic Russian involvement. On 24 June 1992, Shevardnadze and Russian President Boris Yeltsin meet to discuss the question of South Ossetia and a cease-fire. A cease-fire is agreed upon and on 14 July 1992, a CIS peacekeeping operation began, consisting of a Joint Control Commission and joint CIS -Georgian - South Ossetian military patrols.

4.4 Combatants and the Nature of Warfare

Evidence of brutal atrocities committed by the other side has been produced �n masse. Lists of detailed descriptions of brutal assaults on individuals and groups, which I will spare the reader from, have been published, and ‘just’ mention that this includes decapitated infants, raped women and execution in front of family members and so on. In the administrative centre of South Ossetia, Tskhinvali, signs of destruction is still evident. There are bullet holes in almost every building and several houses remain in ruins. According to Georgian sources, some of these houses belonged to Georgian families, who fled or were driven out of Tskhinvali, their houses subsequently burnt. Another monument of the war is School No. 5. Not being able to bury their dead in the cemeteries because of the shelling and the snipers, the Ossetians used the school playground instead.

In addition to this, in lack of a better word, front-line fighting, the Georgians carried out a blockade by controlling the road south of the tunnel, which connects South Ossetia to North Ossetia, using the Georgian villages along the road north of Tskhinvali as strongholds. Georgians disconnected electricity supplies to Tskhinvali, and blocked the road by which the city received food and other products. In February 1991, the central Russian television characterised the situation in the city as "worse than Leningrad in 1942. The entire city is without heating and electricity...there is no food" (Fuller 1991, p.22). On several occasions, the South Ossetians blocked the Georgian villages north of Tskhinvali from the rest of Georgia as well (Helsinki Watch 1992, p.16-17).

As mentioned, troops from Russia's MVD had been in Tskhinvali from the start of the conflict. Their role was rather ambiguous and even contradictory. According to the Ossetians, they did not try to stop the Georgians from taking Tskhinvali. Meanwhile the Soviet Union collapsed and in December 1991, the Russian MVD troops left Tskhinvali. According to Georgian sources, the Russian MVD gave their arms to the Ossetians. Incidents of more overt assistance given by the Russian army were to follow.

In June 1992, the Chairman of the Russian Supreme Soviet, Ruslan Khasbulatov, made a statement in which he described the Georgian actions in South Ossetia as genocide which could force Russia to consider the South Ossetians authorities' request to join the Russian Federation. Shortly afterwards it was reported that heavy weaponry with Russian identification marks was used against the Georgians. Edward Shevardnadze, having been appointed as the chairman of the interim State Council of Georgia (March 1992), made a statement condemning the Russian armed forces' open participation in the conflict on the South Ossetian side.

The Georgians claim that the Russian army helped and supplied the Ossetians several times during the conflict. The Ossetians deny this, saying that they fought alone with no outside help. Most independent observers agree that the Russian forces were not innocent on-lookers in the conflict. Some argue that the actions of the Russian troops were a reflection of decisions made by independent-minded generals rather than as a part of some sinister plan to destabilise Georgia. Nevertheless, the defeats of Georgia, in both South Ossetia and Abkhazia, at that time, fitted perfectly into Russian political and strategic interests in the region. Georgia subsequently crawled to membership of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), accepted (though it has yet to ratify) an agreement to allow Russian military bases for a period of 25 years and signed a treaty of friendship with Russia.

In the end, Georgia changed, or rather had to change its strategy towards Russia to a more co-operative one. Some call it submissive - others realistic. Certainly, Shevardnadze made concerted attempts to stop the fighting in South Ossetia after coming to power - approaching both the Russians and the South Ossetians. The Ossetians contest this, stating that after he came to power, some of the most severe shelling of Tskhinvali took place (Birch 1995, p.48).

It should however, be stated that the nature of this military mission can best be described as confused and anarchic. The Georgian troops in the area were not a disciplined armed formation. The commanders and soldiers were often acting in their own interests or giving in to the emotional mood of the local civilian population. On the Ossetian side the situation was no less complicated. Several political factions had armed formations of their own and their interests did not always coincide. At one point the Minister of Information of South Ossetia, Stanislav Kochiyev, was asked whether he was aware of the existence of forces on Ossetian-controlled territory that were not obeying the Ossetian leadership; he did not deny this possibility (The Current Digest 1992, p.15).

The aspirations of armed groups working outside the control of the recognised leaderships created an atmosphere of tension throughout the first part of 1992. Cease-fires were violated, hostages taken and civilian targets bombarded. In a particularly serious incident on 20th May 1992, 36 Ossetians, including women and children, were killed in lorries and cars on a secondary road Northwest of Tskhinvali. The incident threatened to bring Russia even more directly into the conflict on the side of the South Ossetians. Hard-liners in the Duma used the incident to accuse Georgia of genocide; in retaliation, helicopters with Russian markings bombarded Georgian-controlled villages.

Greg Hansen, a researcher for the American ‘Humanitarianism and War Project & Local Capacities for Peace Project’, whom I have met on several occasions, has as part of this project made a ‘list’, which describes the pattern of warfare in the Caucasus, which I find deserves to be quoted in its full length:

The Nature of Warfare in the Caucasus

The following patterns have emerged that are common to the violent conflicts in the region:

Lack of accountability of military and paramilitary forces to political structures. Autonomous military action by individual units, without consent or knowledge of legitimate authorities, and a readiness to take hostile action in response to rumours (such as reports of atrocities);

Uncommonly poor command, control and communications, and unclear, weak, or nonexistent chains of command within and between formations;

Extensive cross-fertilization of criminal and military activity, profiteering within and often between armed formations at all levels, sometimes across the lines of conflict;

Employment of mercenaries, contract soldiers, poorly trained conscripts, and the proliferation of undisciplined, untrained, and often uncontrollable militias and factions, sometimes under the guise of civilian organizations;

Poor or non-existent logistics and supply capacities leading to looting for subsistence and other abuses of the civilian population;

Prolific drunkenness often leading to unrestrained, arbitrary behaviour;

Indiscriminate artillery, rocket, and aerial bombardment of built up areas, including civilian residential areas and infrastructure;

Intentional targeting or commandeering of civilian locations and infrastructure including schools, hospitals, waterworks, religious symbols, historical archives, museums, etc.;

Soviet-style counterinsurgency strategy which places the onus for maintaining order and nonbelligerency upon civilian heads of administration, elders, and others who are subsequently perceived as partisan and drawn into conflict;

Intentional disruption of essential services including food distribution, electricity, water, and natural gas supplies;

Intentional provocation of displacement of civilians through military action;

Indiscriminate mining with little or no record-keeping of mined areas;

Use of civilians, including women, children, the elderly, and those in flight from conflict, as human shields to mask or “protect” combat operations;

Extensive hostage taking and arbitrary detention;

Systematic destruction or looting to render depopulated areas uninhabitable in the long term;

Physical and administrative obstruction of access for humanitarian organizations to civilian populations before, during, and after military action;

General disregard for international humanitarian law and other recognized restraints on the conduct of warfare.

(Hansen 1998, p.11).

I have fortunately not experienced any actual fighting as I came to the area after fighting had ended and the cease-fire had functioned for several years, but I do recognise the description form these above mentioned points. I have seen the destruction, spoken to refugees on both sides, former combatants from each side and been in close contact to militias and Russian peacekeepers at different checkpoints. I have often been temporary retained by Russian peacekeeping soldiers looking like sixteen years old boys, not knowing what to do with a Danish guy saying he works for an NGO, calling on their superior, completely drunk and angry about being disrupted from his morning drinking session, at checkpoints in no-mans-land. In the other conflict-zone, Abkhazia, I got, through several trips to the region acquainted with the commander of an Abkhaz checkpoint in the Georgian populated area of Gali under Abkhaz de facto jurisdiction. On one occasion he entrusted to me that him and his men had not been provisioned for weeks and soon would have to find provision in the nearby Georgian village. This at a relative peaceful time of that conflict. In times of actual warfare less co-ordination and impulsive behaviour on behalf of the combatants will be the case.

In the Georgian – South Ossetian conflict the armed formations on both sides, but most notably on the Georgian side, consisted of independent armed formations or rather paramilitary groups. As many as six groups are said to have participated in the conflict on Georgian side besides the ‘National Guard’ (which was just formed days before the actual ‘invasion’): the ‘White Eagles’, ‘White George’, ‘White Falcons’, ‘Black Panthers’, the ‘Kutaisi National Guard’, and the ‘Merab Kostava Society’. These groups consisted of between 50 and 200 men and did seldom co-ordinate their activities. Some were loyal to the president, some belonging to the opposition, others were mafia-affiliated groups. Besides these groups the villagers often had their own defence groups in lack of governmental protection from a regular army (Helsinki Watch 1992, p.13-14).

The South Ossetian Republican Guard, established in November 1991, was about the time of the conflict said to be consisting of about 2400 men (Helsinki Watch 1992, p.13). However, as in the Georgian case, it is difficult to speak of a regular army as the Ossetians, as mentioned, also were organised in equivalent small groups belonging to different political factions also with lack of co-ordination and accountability. Finally it should be mentioned that because of the degeneration of the Soviet armed forces physically and in terms of morale and society as such, arms supplies have been no problem on the contrary and this, not withstanding a permanent cease-fire, is still a problem.

4.5 The Present Situation

You can say that the actual fighting ceased because the Georgian government and the different forces were dragged into other conflicts. Georgia had to seek a cease-fire agreement with a Russian presence. In December 1991 the political civil war in Tbilisi began between opposition forces and the government of Zviad Gamsakhurdia, who was ousted. Shortly after pro-Gamsakhurdia forces (the so-called Zviadists) started an armed rebellion in Western Georgia and simultaneously the situation in Abkhazia worsened and war was expected. Isolated incidents took place but the actual war in Abkhazia can be said to have started in August 1992. These other events not only made what was left of a Georgian central government to seek a cease-fire agreement but literally dragged the Georgian armed formations and militias out of the area to the other hot spots of Georgia. At first Tbilisi, then western Georgia and finally Abkhazia.

After the cease-fire agreement in South Ossetia and the implementation of the peacekeeping operation there were still a few isolated incidents of fighting. However, the cease-fire can be characterised as a success, inasmuch as it separated the conflicting parties. From 1992 till mid 1995 the situation was rather frozen. The process effectively separated South Ossetia completely from Georgia and contacts between the two sides were rare.

For these years the Georgian perception of the conflict was that Russia started it and therefore the key to the conflict lay in Moscow. Hence negotiations with the South Ossetians were not taken very seriously, and efforts were mainly directed towards changing the Russian position and the situation in Abkhazia, which demanded political attention in the face of about 240.000 Georgian refugees.

After Georgia's entry into the CIS and the agreement on Russian military bases (not ratified yet, as Georgia holds it as a bargaining chip in order to regain Abkhazia and South Ossetia) and Russia's own problems with the secessionist Chechnya the official position of Russia seems to have changed. Hence at several summits of the leaders of the CIS countries there have been calls for the support of the restoration of Georgian territorial integrity, with president Yeltsin making strong statements against separatism.

On the Georgian side there have been made several statements acknowledging remorse and a great deal of responsibility for the conflict. It is one of Shevardnadze's major achievements that he has played down nationalistic politics and furthermore that the new constitution, adopted in August 1995, provides solid guarantees for individual and minority rights.

So in some ways the parties moved a step towards each other, but at the same time the unclear situation in Moscow for a long time made it difficult to move further. This was clearly reflected in the different signals that came from Tskhinvali, from seeking co-operation with Georgia to an uncompromising stand for independence. The North Ossetian leadership, within the Russian Federation, has mainly followed the official Russian line. The South Ossetian position, feeling isolated, has swung between claims for full independence, rather than unification with North Ossetia through the Russian Federation, and a more open-minded view towards Georgia.

In this connection it is interesting to mention that in April 1995 I encountered a new version of the formation of the South Ossetian nation as being divided ages ago from the North Ossetians stressing the uniqueness of the South Ossetians rather than characterising the Ossetians as one nation.

As the unclear situation in Moscow continued as a rather permanent situation both parties realised that a solution should be found amongst themselves. Furthermore Georgia made great progress in its state-building process. The civil turmoil, to say the least that characterised Georgia throughout its first five years of independence came slowly but steady under control. The crime rate is still high but the state structures have been strengthened and uncontrolled paramilitary groups have been dissolved. Georgia has undertaken free and fair elections and has been characterised as one of the most democratic states of the former Soviet republics. Of course there are still problems and measures to be taken but compared to the situation even in 1995 one can easily say that Georgia has undergone drastic changes.

In South Ossetia on the other hand the situation looks somewhat similar to the state of Georgia a couple of years ago. You can hardly talk about an economy, and if you do it is of dubious character. The political situation is also somewhat dubious, though the communists are in power there are evidence of severe internal power struggles, each fraction with their armed formations. However, the replacement of the wartime leadership with a new one has definitely made talks with the Georgian side easier.

Refugees have begun to resettle in the zone of conflict but still only in small numbers, the major obstacle being the economic situation in the region (based on interviews with representatives from UNHCR-Tskhinvali and the Norwegian Refugee Council-Tskhinvali November 1997).

Until 1997 major donors such as the European Union and UN agencies tended to steer clear of assistance to South Ossetia, fearing that their relations with the Georgian government would be jeopardised and the region’s claims to independence legitimised. Only most pressing humanitarian needs were met by the ICRC and MSF.

As talks proceeded this changed and the UNHCR, UNDP and the European Union have now initiate several programmes for physical rehabilitation of the conflict zone, though the South Ossetian government still complains about its small scope.

The major break through in negotiation happened in May 1996 when the two sides signed a ‘Memorandum on measures for providing security and joint confidence’ in which the two sides renounced the use of force. This has been followed up by several meetings between president of Georgia Eduard Shevardnadze and president of South Ossetia Ludwig Chibirov and their respective heads of governments (Cousens 1997, p.7).

Numerous small steps of co-operation between the bordering local Georgian authorities and South Ossetian authorities had prepared this. Small practical steps such as electricity supplies, irrigation programmes, law enforcement co-operation, reconstruction of the road system, etc. A co-operation that is still ongoing and expanding its scope.

This relaxation in the atmosphere has also resulted in the removing of most the checkpoints of the peacekeeping forces, which now has been replaced by ordinary police checkpoints by both South Ossetian and Georgian police units. Even though most Georgians have not returned specifically to Tskhinvali, Georgians and South Ossetians do increasingly interact, mainly in the field of small trade. At first at a market in no-mans-land between the military checkpoints but later in Tskhinvali itself.

Other forms of co-operation between Georgians and South Ossetians are also taking place. A sort of co-operation that might postpone the prospects of reaching a final peace. First of all one have to understand that both the collapse of the Soviet Union, specifically its economy, and the war itself has left the economy of South Ossetia in ruins. Law and order collapsed and the region degenerated into heavily armed banditry. The absence of central control over the region, the loose authority of the South Ossetian government, and the region’s contiguity to the Russian Federation, through their ‘kin's’ in North Ossetia, have made it a haven for organised criminal activity, specifically smuggling (Hansen 1998, p.16 and MacFarlane 1996, p.8).

When I returned to the region in 1997, after one year of absence, I could not help notice the long line of trucks on the border between South Ossetia and Georgia proper, and as I entered Tskhinvali a conspicuous amount of Mercedes Benz’s, BMWs, jeeps’ and newly erected houses. I soon found out that the trucks were carrying ethyl alcohol for the production of vodka in North Ossetia. An illegal alcohol trade, which conservative estimates tells amount to a figure about 2.5 million US$ (Cousens 1997, p.12).

The unsettled status of south Ossetia seems like a profitable situation for some groups and even though it ironically represents a form of co-operation between Georgians and South Ossetian this can prolong the way to a final political solution and determination of the status of South Ossetia.

[1] Amongst the North Ossetians there are a minority of Muslims but none in South Ossetia.

[2] In contrast, in North Ossetia there were no schools with instruction in the Ossetian language until 1988, (Zhorzholiani 1995, p.11, quoting Galazov, the Chairman of the Supreme Soviet of North Ossetia, in the newspaper Pravda).

[3] This was two years before North Ossetia was granted autonomy within Russia. In many ways South Ossetians have always been a step ahead of their northern brethren in emphasising their national identity. This can also be seen in the use of the Ossetian language as mentioned above, as well as in the use of the white, red and yellow Ossetian flag which was used for the first time in South Ossetia.

[4] In this connection a Georgian academic has made a good observation: Since encouraging ethnic conflicts was supposedly a "KGB policy", some of Gamsakhurdia's adversaries used his anti-minority stand for charging him with being "KGB agent" (Nodia 1992, p.36).

[5] This was of course a part of the Georgian struggle for independence of the Soviet Union more than aimed at the specific case of South Ossetia, but never the less the South Ossetians felt threatened.

[6] Ossetians living in Georgia proper were also affected by the conflict. According to Ossetians living in Georgia proper, 50% of the 100.000 Ossetian living there fled Georgia, some for South Ossetia, most for North Ossetia. The cause was increasing nationalistic rhetoric, discrimination and incidents of threats and violence, just before and during Gamsakhurdia's period (conversation with the Ossetian organisation "Vsmaroni" (brotherhood), October 1995, in Tbilisi and report from OSCE Mission to Georgia 1996).

[7] This figure is uncertain, as no exact figures are available. From contact with personnel of UNHCR and the Norwegian Refugee Council in 1997 it is however, clear that the devastation in the surrounding villages was quite substantial.

Chapter 5