The Georgian-Osset conflict

The Georgian-Osset conflict, like the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict, is rooted in Ossetian belief that they are a distinct ethnicity with different culture and language than that of ethnic Georgians. The rise in respective ethnic nationalisms as the Soviet Union collapsed led to wars and human rights abuses by Ossetian and Georgian militias and military forces which hardened both sides. The 2008 War and subsequent Russian recognition of South Ossetia’s independence and security did not resolve the conflict, but served to make both sides even more entrenched.

Major events

1922: Ossetia is divided. North Ossetia remains part of Russia. South Ossetia remains part of Georgia.

November 1989: Soviet of the South Ossetian Autonomous Province declares the province sovereign. Its intention was to secede from Georgia and unite with the neighboring North Ossetian Autonomous Republic within the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (RSFSR).

1990: The province was declared the South Ossetian Soviet Democratic Republic, within the USSR but separate from Georgia. Elections to a new South Ossetian Supreme Soviet were held in December 1990. In response, the Georgian Supreme Soviet declared the changes introduced by the Osset leaders as invalid, and withdrew recognition of the autonomy that South Ossetia had previously enjoyed. A state of emergency was imposed in the province, and police were sent in to assert Tbilisi’s control, resulting in the first violent clashes. The war continued until June 1991. Most of the fighting was done by irregular nationalist paramilitary formations. Both sides committed atrocities. The war resulted in about 1,000 deaths. Much of the South Ossetian city of Tskhinvali was left in ruins. Over 100,000 people were refugees, mostly in other parts of Georgia and in North Ossetia.

2004: Armed confrontations as Georgia cracked down on smuggling from the region and vied for control of ethnically Georgian villages in the southern part of South Ossetia, leading to some exchanges of fire. In mid-July the Joint Control Commission (representing Georgia, South Ossetia, North Ossetia, and Russia) reached a new provisional agreement to avert large-scale bloodshed.

2006: South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoity was reelected “president” in November 2006 in a poll not recognized by the international community. A referendum held at the same time expressed South Ossetian support for independence. At about the same time, the Georgian government launched an alternative to the South Ossetia authorities. Georgia held an election in the Tbilisi-controlled part of South Ossetia (also not recognized by the international community) resulting in the election of Dmitry Sonakoyev as“president,” and a referendum supporting this territory remaining part of Georgia. Sonakoyev was an ethnic South Ossetian who fought against Georgia in the 1990-92 conflict. His “temporary administrative unit” was located in the Georgian-controlled village of Kurta. Georgia controlled about a third of South Ossetia’s 30-80,000 people.

2008: Georgia notified Russia that it was no longer going to take part in the South Ossetia Joint Control Commission established by the 1992 cease fireagreement and called for a new, more “international” mechanism. Russian President Putin took new steps to strengthen the position of the Abkhazia and South Ossetia “governments” (and tighten their relationships with Russia).

May 2008: After accusing Georgia of a military buildup in the Kodori Gorge, the Russian Defense Ministry warned Georgia that any attempts to use force against Russian peacekeepers or Russian citizens on the territory of Abkhazia and South Ossetia would be met with “a stringent and adequate response.”

Attempts at peace

1991: Georgia opened peace negotiations with South Ossetia. Representatives of North Ossetia also took part in the talks. A ceasefire was reached in May 1992, but broke down almost immediately. In June, the sides met again under Russian auspices, and agreed on a new ceasefire to be enforced by joint peacekeeping forces.

1992: In contrast to the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict, the CSCE played the lead role in mediating the Georgian-Osset conflict. The CSCE Mission to Georgia was set up in Tbilisi with a mandate to promote negotiations to resolve the Georgian-Osset conflict. In 1994, its mandate was expanded to include monitoring of the peacekeeping forces in South Ossetia, facilitating cooperation between the parties, promoting human rights, and assisting in the building of democratic institutions. In 1997, an OSCE branch office was opened in Tskhinvali. (It was closed in 2009, together with the OSCE Mission to Georgia.)

1996: The parties signed a memorandum in which they undertook to refrain from the threat or use of force, to continue negotiations, to facilitate the return of refugees, and gradually to demilitarize the area.

2005: Saakashvili called on South Ossetia to renounce the use of force and accept autonomous status within Georgia.

2006: Saakashvili made a proposal for the resolution of the South Ossetia conflict, which included demilitarization, direct dialogue, establishment of an international police presence, signing of pledges on the non-use of force, and economic rehabilitation.

2007: Saakashvili launched a new initiative proposing that South Ossetia be run by a new, interim administration pending a negotiated settlement of its status. South Ossetia’s de facto authorities rejected the proposal.

2008: A Georgian delegation led by State Reintegration Minister Iakobashvili visited Moscow to present a Georgian peace plan that included an international conference in Moscow, an agreement by all sides not to use armed force, a return of Georgian refugees, and an international force to police the peace that would include Russians and contingents from other nations. Russia found nothing in the proposal worth discussing. Following the 2008 War, the EU Monitoring Mission (EUMM)was established in October with 200 monitors from 26 member states and a mandate to monitor, analyze and report on the security situation in the disputed regions, including those displaced by the conflict.

Mission members of the CSCE Mission to Georgia inspect areas of conflict in the region of South Ossetia, 1993.(OSCE)

Mission members of the CSCE Mission to Georgia inspect areas of conflict in the region of South Ossetia, 1993.(OSCE)

2010: Russia urged OSCE to recognize the independence of South Ossetia. The overwhelming majority of participating states rejected the proposal.

EU Monitoring Mission

Following the 2008 War, the EUMonitoring Mission (EUMM) was established in October with200 monitors from 26 member states and a mandate to monitor, analyze and report on the security situation in the disputed regions, including those displaced by the conflict.  The EUMM, however, has only been able to operate on the Georgian-side of the cease-fire lines.


Near-term prospects for the peaceful resolution of the status of South Ossetia are dim. The very small territory, which lacks political, economic, or military autonomy or decision-making power, is under the control of Russia. The population is shrinking and the economy is stagnating resulting from the closure of the de facto border with the rest of Georgia. Russia funds the entity, protects its territory and is an advocate for South Ossetia internationally. The refusal of the Georgian government and the international community to deal with South Ossetia tends to push the region closer to Moscow.