Ossetians make up only 3 per cent of the total population of Georgia, but compose two-thirds of the population of South Ossetia. Before the conflict began, 300,000 Ossetians lived in the North Ossetian Autonomous Republic within the Russian Socialist Federal Soviet Republic (RSFSR), and 160,000 in Georgia, just under half of them in the South Ossetian Autonomous Region. Some 74 per cent of the population of the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali were Ossetian and 16 per cent Georgian, with other ethnic groups making up the rest. Following the outbreak of hostilities between the Georgians and the Ossetians, almost all the Ossetian population fled from the rest of Georgia, emigrating to South Ossetia, North Ossetia or to cities in Russia itself.
Ossetian is a language of the Northern Iranian group. It was written in the Latin script from 1923 to 1938, in the Georgian alphabet from 1938 to 1954; in 1954 the Cyrillic in use in North Ossetia was also adopted in the south. Few of the Ossetian population speak Georgian. Most are fluent in Russian.
The Ossetians are of mixed Sunni Muslim and Christian background, roughly of equal numbers, although Christians predominate in the south. However, the polytheistic traditional religion has not been completely wiped out; it staged a remarkable recovery after the last mosque and Christian church were closed in South Ossetia in 1932.
Following the revival of religion in the late 1980s, Orthodox Christians in South Ossetia petitioned for their church to be subject to the Moscow Patriarchate rather than the Georgian Church.
During the later Soviet period, this region was known as the South Ossetian Autonomous Region. The local Ossetian administration calls it the Republic of South Ossetia, while the Georgian side calls it Samachablo or Shida Kartli. The capital is called Tskhinvali in Georgian and Tskhinval in Ossetian.
In January 1989, an Ossetian nationalist movement Adamon Nykhas (Popular Shrine) was formed in Tskhinvali, headed by Alan Chochiev. In 1989, Georgian pressure on the Ossetian population increased. The Georgians were angered by Ossetian support for secessionists in Abkhazia.
As the Soviet Union collapsed at the end of 1991, South Ossetians became increasingly fearful of being absorbed into an independent, nationalist Georgia. Consequently, in December 1991 they declared independence from Georgia and elected Torez Kolumbegov as chairman of parliament, in effect the region's president. The Georgian Army, supplied with weaponry from the ex-Soviet army based in Georgia, began a assault on the territory. Using tanks and heavy artillery the Georgians blockaded Tskhinvali. By then, the conflict had already caused many to flee: the Georgians to Georgia, the Ossetians to North Ossetia.
The South Ossetians held a referendum in January 1992 amid the Georgian attack, in which 99 per cent supported independence from Georgia and 97 per cent backed reunification with North Ossetia within the Russian Federation. The Supreme Soviet then wrote to President Yeltsin, declaring that Ossetia had, previous to Soviet rule, never been divided, and had a historic right to be part of the Russian Federation.
After Georgian assurances that it would cease attacks on the territory, Russia withdrew troops from the area. In May 1992, however, the Georgians renewed the attack, which was to reach the edge of Tskhinvali.
In an attempt to avoid further bloodshed, Russian President Yeltsin and Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze reached agreement at a summit in Sochi on 24 June 1992 for CIS peacekeeping forces to be stationed in South Ossetia, and they arrived in July. Armed clashes were significantly reduced.
In March 1994, parliamentary elections in South Ossetia saw the replacement of the radical nationalist movement by the old communist leaders, but the new leadership did not modify its demands for South Ossetia to remain independent of Georgia and to be united with North Ossetia within the Russian Federation.
In October 1994, as negotiations with Tbilisi seemed to be at an impasse, South Ossetia proposed the formation of a CIS-2, bringing together the unrecognised entities of the CIS, including in addition Nagorny-Karabakh, Abkhazia and Transdniestr.
Although South Ossetia is effectively outside the control of the Tbilisi government, presidential and parliamentary elections did take place in some Georgian-controlled settlements in South Ossetia in November 1995.
The number of Ossetians returning to South Ossetia has increased since the summer of 1997 when Lyudvig Chibirov, the president of the self-declared republic, announced allowances for returnees. At the same time, citing budgetary difficulties, the government of the Russian republic of North Ossetia, which lies on the northern side of the Caucasus mountains, decided to cut off financial support for refugees from South Ossetia. Many of these had settled in the North in 1992, when fighting between Ossetians and Georgians was at its height.
After the August 1998 Russian financial crash, South Ossetia abandoned the Russian rouble as the de facto currency and switched to the Georgian lari.
The Georgian parliament strongly condemned the parliamentary elections held in South Ossetia on 12 May 1999, dismissing the election as illegal and illegitimate, citing the lack of any mechanism for allowing the participation of the 35,000 ethnic Georgian population forced to leave their homes in South Ossetia during the fighting in the early 1990s.
In a referendum held on 8 April 2001, South Ossetian voters approved a new constitution that includes a more stringent, ten-year residency requirement for presidential candidates. The revision is likely to enhance incumbent president Lyudvig Chibirov's position in his bid for a second term in November of 2001. Voters also recognised Russian and Ossetian as South Ossetia's official language, with Georgian deemed official in regions where Georgians hold majority status.
1989 Nationalist movement Adamon Nykhas formed (January). South Ossetian support
for Abkhaz separatists. Calls for reunification with North Ossetia. Georgians
moved on the capital, Tskhinvali (November).
1990 Soviet Interior Ministry troops deployed (January). South Ossetian Republic declared (December). Gamsakhurdia abolished autonomous status.
1991 Gorbachev rescinded changes to South Ossetian status (January). South Ossetia declared independence from Georgia (December). Georgian assault.
1992 Referendum supported independence and reunification with North Ossetia. Torez Kolumbegov freed. New Georgian attack (May). CIS peacekeeping forces arrived (July).
1994 New elections replaced Ossetian nationalists with former communists (March). CSCE began negotiations (June).
1997 Stanislav Kochiev made minister of information. Konstantin Dzugaev made chairman of parliament.
1999 Parliamentary elections (May).
Leadership of South Ossetia remains in the hands of a small, tightly-knit group closely related to the last communist leadership of the autonomous region. The most senior figure is Lyudvig Chibirov, who was elected South Ossetia's first president in a poll conducted despite the opposition of the Georgian government and outside mediators (including the OSCE) on 10 November 1996. Chibirov defeated five other candidates, including the Deputy Prime Minister Gerasim Khugaev. All Chibirov's opponents offered more hard-line positions, opposing reunification with Georgia or backing unification with North Ossetia.
The institution of a presidency for South Ossetia was largely at the urging of Chibirov, who believed it was needed to end political infighting. Georgia protested at the inauguration of a presidency in the breakaway region. President Shevardnadze declared the election ``not legal'', a view echoed by his advisor on settling ethnic conflicts, Irakly Machavariani. However, the Georgian authorities undoubtedly preferred Chibirov - with whom they have already been negotiating - to any of the other candidates.
Unlike leaders of other breakaway states in the former Soviet Union, Chibirov is meek and inexperienced, and allows himself to be influenced by Moscow and the leadership of the North Ossetian Republic (a constituent part of the Russian Federation).
In the wake of his election, Chibirov was able to rebuild the administration more to his liking. The previous prime minister, Vladislav Gabaraev, who had his differences with Chibirov, was removed from office and was replaced by Alexander Shavlokhov. He was later removed and the current prime minister is Merab Chigoyev, formerly the prosecutor-general. The foreign minister is Murat Djioev, who took over from Yuri Gagliotti (who had taken over the post from Dmitri Medoev in mid-1996). The defence minister is Dmitri Sanakoev.
Konstantin Dzugaev was elected chairman of parliament on 6 December 1996.
The political leadership, which keeps a close rein on all developments in South Ossetia, has been relatively unstable over the past few years. The nationalist leadership of Torez Kolumbegov has given way to that of the old communists who, although they rule with authoritarianism, have not escaped factional disputes.
South Ossetia receives substantial economic and military aid from North Ossetia, a subject of the Russian Federation which, for its part, depends on Moscow for a large percentage of its budget.
South Ossetia adopted its own constitution in 1996.
The South Ossetian leadership went ahead with elections to a new parliament on 12 May 1999, despite Georgian and international opposition to what was considered an illegal election. Four of the total 33 mandates were reserved for ethnic Georgian candidates, and the minority Georgian population was actively encouraged to vote in that poll.
In late September 1999, Merab Chigoev, head of the unrecognised South Ossetian government, accused the central Georgian government of reneging on a previous agreement to provide economic aid and electricity to South Ossetia. Georgia cut off power supplies to the breakaway region on 1 September because the local government has failed to pay its debt for previous energy supplies.
South Ossetian President Lyudvig Chibirov faced his first incident of public demonstration when on 18 November 1999 protestors from a group known as `Hope of Ossetia' assembled in Tskhinvali to decry the poor economic situation and dilapidated public utilities. The group called for Chibirov's resignation.
President: Lyudvig Chibirov
Prime Minister: Merab Chigoev
First Deputy Prime Minister: Leonid Tibilov
Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defence and Emergency Situations: Dimitri Sanakoev
Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance: Evelina Gagloyeva
Foreign Minister: Murat Djioev
Internal Affairs Minister: Alan Guchmazov
Chairman of Parliament: Konstantin Dzugaev
South Ossetia maintains its own small force, although its effectiveness in combat is difficult to assess, given that most security duties are undertaken by the Russian-led force.
President Lyudvig Chibirov is chairman of the Security Council and, as such, commander-in-chief of the armed forces. The current defence minister is Dmitri Sanakoev, who took over from Nikolai Dzagoev. A previous defence minister, Parpat Dzhoev, was killed in November 1993.
The chairman of the State Security Committee (the local successor to the KGB) is Leonid Tibilov.
In 1992, Russian paratroopers and interior troops, a 900-man `North Ossetian battalion' and Georgian National Guardsmen moved into South Ossetia. As a consequence some degree of peace was restored. The presence of the peacekeeping force has in effect frozen the ceasefire lines, allowing South Ossetia to remain outside the jurisdiction of Tbilisi.
Russian troops are deployed along the Russian-Georgian border. Their presence has helped stem the narcotics trade across the frontier and the activities of Ossetian separatists. However, the Ossetian authorities have continued to allow weapons and drug smuggling through the tunnel under the Caucasus that links South Ossetia to North Ossetia.
As of the end of 1995, there were some 3,000 CIS peacekeeping troops in South Ossetia, the vast majority of whom were Russian.
The CSCE (now OSCE) began mediation work in South Ossetia in 1992 and has been attempting to bring about a negotiated end to the conflict since then. Since December 1993 it has had an expanded mandate not just to look at South Ossetia in isolation but to try to resolve the conflict within an overall resolution of the status of all Georgia's regions. There has been some progress in the South Ossetian negotiations since the beginning of 1995, but both sides appear to be waiting for a resolution of the Abkhaz conflict to set the tone of relations between Tbilisi and the regions. South Ossetia will want the same guarantees over autonomy that Abkhazia eventually obtains from Tbilisi.
Contacts between the two sides within the framework of the Joint Control Commission, which was set up to handle the ceasefire and day-to-day issues, have increased. The commission includes representatives of the Georgian, South Ossetian, North Ossetian and Russian sides, and maintains links with the OSCE's mediation process. In December 1995, some progress was made in the commission towards rebuilding infrastructure links between the two sides.
This was followed up on 16 May 1996 by a memorandum promoting security and strengthening mutual confidence. The memorandum built on the 1992 ceasefire agreement, and supports a number of initiatives already underway, including co-operation in fighting crime and promoting contacts between civic groups on the two sides. However, it does not address many key issues, including the eventual relation of South Ossetia to the rest of Georgia or the role of North Ossetia (which has given economic and military aid to the South) in the breakaway region.
There were protests in Tskhinvali by the nationalist organisation Adamon Nykhas (Popular Shrine), which rejects any compromise. It called for elections to be held for a South Ossetian presidency, and backed the candidature of Alan Chochiev. For their part, Georgians driven out of the region demanded the immediate withdrawal of Russian troops.
The warming relations between Tbilisi and North Ossetia have made the process of reconciliation easier. Early in 1996 the North Ossetian leader, Akhsarbek Galazov, joined President Shevardnadze at a high-profile football match in Tbilisi in a clear signal of rapprochement between the two sides. The parliaments of Georgia and North Ossetia signed a joint communiqué in May 1996 pledging themselves to building friendly mutual relations.
Despite the setback in relations between Tbilisi and Tskhinvali caused by the November 1996 South Ossetian presidential election, Shevardnadze met the victorious Lyudvig Chibirov soon after the poll to try to pursue negotiations towards peace.