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Chapter 7 of "The Georgian - South Ossetian Conflict"



7 Conclusion

For Georgia, like other regions or countries that strive for secession from a larger political unit, on the grounds of ethno-national distinctiveness the question of how to deal with its own minorities emerges. The ‘Georgia for Georgians’ campaign or euphoria can be seen as a logical consequence of the process of separation from Soviet/Russian influence. E.g. when the Georgian parliament adopted the 1921 constitution, it was foremost meant as a renunciation of Soviet/Russian influence and presence, and as a restoration of Georgian statehood. However, this functioned effectively as a threat towards the minorities and an alienation of the Georgian State. In the 1921 constitution there is no mentioning of South Ossetian autonomy, and the historical circumstances of the 1920s, where the Georgian army brutally crushed a South Ossetian uprising, could effectively be used by the South Ossetian national movement to build up a hostile attitude towards an independent Georgian state.

The Georgian strive for independence was based on the grounds of Georgian distinctiveness. It was a strive for collective national reassertion vis--vis the Soviet state and the Russians. The Georgian nation was thus from the outset defined in an ethnic manner. This was also, as we have seen, largely due to the inherited Soviet conception of the nation as an ethno-national community. The Soviet system had stressed the principle of congruity between state-structures/units and ethnic groups as an ideal, and laid down this conception on the very heterogeneous area of Caucasus. The Georgians could therefore only perceive the minorities as an anomaly or as guests. The autonomies were to a large extend, especially South Ossetia, viewed as an artificial Soviet installed provision supposed to prevent the Georgians realising independence.

The Georgian national movement viewed the autonomies as Russian installed time bombs, and the minorities as tools or lackeys in the hands of the authorities in Moscow, in which the incidents in the 1920s were effectively used by the Georgian nationalists as well. This explains the insentiveness on the behalf of the Georgian state towards the concerns of the minorities, as it was largely perceived not to be a domestic problem, but an instrumentalised conflict instigated by Moscow. Furthermore, the comprehension of the Georgian nation as an ethno-nation, in the pursue of national reassertion meant a monopoly on Georgian interests excluding the possibility of a civic-political understanding of the nation and hence cross-ethnic alliances. The Georgian State thereby excluded the South Ossetians from the Georgian community by defining it in ethno-national terms. The imagination of the community was demarcative and exclusive, not inclusive and embracing. In the euphoria of the perceived liberation from the Russian occupation, the Georgians neglected the concerns of the minorities and in the process of building an independent state, they refused to take into consideration the problems of building new institutions and relating the composing ethnic groups to these.

As we have seen this can also be derived from the Soviet nationality policies. The policy created an ethnic understanding of the nation and furthermore a development of ethno-national elites. An ethnic consolidation and empowerment of the titular nationalities and their elites took form. Ethnicity became a criterion for success, in the way that privileges and priorities were tied to ethnic belonging and territory. The Soviet system and policies can be characterised as a politicisation and territorialisation of ethnicity. Thus the Soviet legacy prevented or made it difficult for both the Georgian majority and the South Ossetian minority, to have a political-civic understanding of the nation. One can best describe the Soviet system as entrenchment of ethnicity.

The same development occurred, to a certain extent, in the autonomies. In South Ossetia an ethno-national elite was developed too, as well as a consciousness of a collective ethnic identity. Both communities in this way developed a consciousness of being potential nations, in Smiths sense a named human population sharing an historic territory, common myths and historical memories, a mass public culture, a common economy legal rights and duties for all members (Smith 1991, p.14). Legally and economically within the same frame but still divided in different administrative centres. The Soviet Union in this way created antagonistic ethno-national societies/communities and nationalisms within the boundaries of the Georgian State.

Furthermore it is important to see this in connection with the hierarchical structure of the Soviet Union. The hierarchical structure of the Soviet federal system produced inherent conflict constellations, between the three layers of the Union. The Union Centre on one side, the Union Republics on the other and the autonomous units in between. This meant a continuos competition between governments for status and legitimacy over a specific ethnically defined territory and a competition of sovereignty. It was furthermore an institutionalisation of ethnic disparity, levelling the different ethnic groups in terms of status and political power. Since the fault-lines ran parallel to the ethnic ones it cannot simply be seen as a question of administrative problems. In the light of the theories of nationalism, the ethnic or cultural community of the South Ossetians poses a threat to the nationalism of the dominant Georgian community. The South Ossetian community represents an alternative ethno-cultural community that can choose to leave the larger Georgian community, when they find it suitable. The South Ossetian ethnic elite functions as effective rivals to the Georgian state exactly because of their cultural fundament, which makes them able of mobilising popular support.

This meant first of all that Moscow became the perceived protector of the South Ossetians in opposition to the Union centre of Tbilisi, which we have seen was reflected throughout the entire course of the conflict. This pattern caused a vicious spiral in which Georgia tried to liberate 'itself' from the perceived Soviet/Russian repressor. Which then was perceived by the South Ossetians, as they would loose their protector, which further stimulated them to seek protection. Which then again gave cause to the Georgian perception of the South Ossetians as lackeys of Moscow.    

Secondly, this hierarchical system of disparity made Tbilisi, from the view of Tskhinvali, responsible for the overall social and economic conditions in South Ossetia. Discrimination is often said to give cause to ethnic conflict, and as we have seen the Soviet system did foster a situation where ethnicity became a criterion for success. But the political elite in South Ossetia, and the South Ossetians as such, were in a much better position than the minorities without autonomies. Even though they were in a defensive position in respect to the Union Republic centre of Tbilisi, cultural or political discrimination played a minor role, as they were the titular nation of South Ossetia. On the other hand the economic conditions of the South Ossetian autonomous region did play a part in the conflict, but rather in a reinforcing manner than as a cause of conflict. What is of importance here is the fear of the elites of South Ossetia of loosing their privileges, status and positions in an independent Georgia than the actual discrimination before the conflict.

In continuation of this many ethnic conflicts, and other conflicts, can be ascribed to the fact of loss of central power/authority. Surely this has a great deal of saying in the described conflict. This especially due to the specific nature of the Soviet system, with its hierarchical ranked units, and a special system as to the relationship between the different centres. In this respect the demising of central power has had a special significant importance for the minorities.

It was the fear of domination - fears of future ill treatment along ethnic lines after the collapse of the Soviet Union, that made the South Ossetians prefer a continuation of Soviet rule where the ethno-national elite, fostered by the Soviet nationality policies, could maintain maximal control. The Georgian national movement questioned the autonomies and therefore the vicious spiral started evolving.

In this way we could conclude that rather than describing this conflict as an ethnic conflict we should describe it as an administratively political conflict. However, the specific dynamics that have been described here also show that without the ethno-cultural fundament of the elites this conflict might not have taken place, at least not so persistently. As I concluded earlier, what made this conflict a violent conflict and not the cause of sporadic riots, was the presence of elites and a well-defined territory, in comparison with the Azeri minority. But on the other hand it is important to stress that exactly the ethno-cultural fundament of the elites makes them capable of mobilising ‘the people’. As written in the theoretical part, ethnic mobilisation is only possible where the symbolic resources of the community have been continuously maintained and developed in order to command its emotional appeal. Nationalism, in an ethnic-organic understanding, took during Soviet rule, root in the collective consciousness, of both the Georgians and the South Ossetians; it was not only an elite phenomenon.

Nationalism and ethnicity are both a principle for political organisation but also a focus for personal identity. Ethnicity has on the same time a strong emotional appeal and a strong political mobilisation potential. In a conflict situation this combination is explosive.

When ethnic groups mobilise politically in order to challenge the state it is often because of inequality of socio-economic conditions, access to political influence or power, status and civil rights etc. But it is important not to deny or underestimate the importance of the cultural fundament in this. The cultural elements, which serves in symbolising the ethnic group in relation to the surroundings are not just symbols but also function as an existential platform. And precisely the cultural fundament does that ethnic conflicts have if not such an intensity then a special dynamic compared to other conflicts.

What we have been able to conclude from this thesis is that contrary to common believe, the Soviet Union not only nourished and developed ethnic and national identities, their nationality policies and federal system was inherently conflictual in respect to these identities. We cannot talk of old ancient hatreds, when nationalism and the idea of the nation is a modern phenomenon, precisely developed during Soviet rule.

Multinational or heterogeneous states are not artificial constructions. The idea of the nation is artificial - a construction or an imagination - a social reality - yes - but the idea of the homogeneous nation-state is an illusion. The fact is that 90 percent of present days states are ethnic heterogeneous makes homogeneity an illusion. And this illusion or strive towards homogeneity is the conflictual aspect - not heterogeneity. Thus ethnic diversity is not conflictual in itself. Even nationalism is in itself not enough to create conflict. Ethno-nationalism is only inasmuch as it creates inequalities, economically or socially etc. And even then it might not be enough.

It is not yet clear what conditions are necessary and sufficient for the initiation of ethnic conflict, nor is there a rigorous understanding of why some conflicts are more intense than others are. But I do hope that this thesis have brought some more clarity to the notion of ethnic conflict and if not deciphered it then at least demystified it and shown that the term ethnic conflict should be used with extreme caution. One might even say that the labelling of a conflict as an ethnic conflict should be seen as expression of our own ignorence or at least lack of knowledge.           

It should now be clear to the reader that the so-called ethnic conflict between Georgians and South Ossetians cannot be explained by the mere fact of ethnic differences or the renewal of runaway old ancient hatred after the repressive lid of Communism have been removed. The conflict should rather be seen as a product of a complex set of interacting circumstances. Both due to the Soviet legacy, specifically the Soviet nationality policies and the hierarchical structure of the Soviet Federal Union; to the collapse of this system and the following decline and absence of central power and authority; to the Georgian ‘exclusionist’ ethno-nationalist policies in pursue of independence; and due to the specific circumstances of the South Ossetian minority, possessing an autonomous unit and an ethnic elite, and their ‘fragmentive’ ethno-nationalist response to the Georgian strive for independence.


List of Literature and Appendix