SOUTH OSSETIA’S VLADIKAVKAZ CONNECTION
A EurasiaNet Photo Commentary by Daniel J Gerstle
The Russian Duma’s December 6 resolution calling for recognition of the breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia sparked outrage within Georgia, and some degree of befuddlement abroad. Outsiders may wonder why Russian lawmakers, who oppose secessionists at home, voted to support independence for the territory. Ossetian national ideology and the Ossetian people’s historic ties with Russia provide the key to understanding this relationship.
In the early 19th century, Ossetia was incorporated into the Russian Empire. By 1922, the Soviet Union would solidify the high mountain border dividing ethnic Ossetians between Russia and Georgia. South Ossetia was made an autonomous region of newly secured Soviet Georgia.
In 1942-1943, when the Soviet Army repulsed a marauding Nazi German advance on the fields of North Ossetia with help from local fighters, Soviet policymakers resurrected Ossetian national ideology by proclaiming the group heroes. Many in the Soviet government began to think of Ossetians as steadfast allies.
Ossetian national ideology is rooted in part in the work of Kosta Khetagkhaty (Khetagurov), a 19th century scholar, artist and poet, who pioneered modern Ossetian literature. Khetagkhaty and his followers re-standardized Ossetian script and grammar to unite speakers of the language, which has distant links to Persian. They called Ossetia Alania, their ethnic group “ir” or “iron adam”, and their national ideology “Farn”. Ossetian national leaders argued that the group was distinct from other Caucasus groups, with its own Orthodox creed.
National leaders of pre- and early Soviet days as well as many European and Russian historians, added to these beliefs with recorded folk tales, or Nart sagas, and historical epics that traced Ossetians’s ethnic evolution to the ancient Scythians, Sarmatians, and Alanians of Eurasia. These tales narrated the struggles of a people who allegedly ruled an empire covering the entire Caucasus.
Symbols of that national pride can be seen below Mount Narivhoh (Khariu Hoh – R.K) in the central Caucasus Mountains, which contains semi-ruined stone towers in which Ossetian fighters during the 18th and 19th centuries hid loved ones and valuables from Russian attackers. Beside the tower clusters stand houses of the dead, cottage-like tombs in which skeletons lie bare for natural decomposition and spiritual freedom.
One of the most prominent sites is that of Dzivgis, high above the Fiagdon River Valley in North Ossetia. In 1830, a cliff-side battle here finally ended the Ossetian guerilla struggle against Russian rule.
Meanwhile, economic cooperation began to smooth over the differences of the past. In the modern era, construction of the road linking North and South Ossetia, as well as thriving steelworks and vodka-bottling industries in Vladikavkaz, the North Ossetian capital, further reinforced a Russo-Ossetian partnership.
Today, the survival of breakaway South Ossetia depends on this road link, as much as on the advocacy of North Ossetia on its behalf. Following South Ossetian separatists’ 1991-1992 war with Georgia, the Ossetian lobby in Russia first persuaded the Kremlin to shelter refugees from the conflict in the environs of Vladikavkaz, then to allow South Ossetians to enjoy a quasi-dual citizenship status, which allows them to travel to and from Russia without visas.
That support can reportedly also occur at the expense of other ethnic groups. In 1992, as the Georgian-South Ossetian conflict heated up, North Ossetians waged a brief fight with neighboring Ingushetia over political control of the Prigorodny District just east of Vladikavkaz. After hundreds of deaths, several thousand ethnic Ingush fled to Ingushetia proper where many continue to live in temporary shelters. A United Nations field officer confirmed for this author that North Ossetian authorities then resettled thousands of South Ossetian refugees in abandoned Ingush homes.
The contemporary Ossetian national movement now champions unification of South Ossetia with the Russian Federation’s North Ossetia as a way to protect Ossetians not only against Georgia, but against the threat of a fresh Ingush conflict and against the periodic bouts of anti-Kremlin violence that the North Caucasus has known since the wars in Chechnya.
North Ossetia has been placed at the center of the struggle against these uprisings.
After the war in nearby Chechnya began in earnest in 1994, the Russian authorities began using the autonomous republic as a chief military base for launching campaigns against Islamic extremists in Chechnya and Ingushetia. Since then, North Ossetia has been targeted by dozens of terror attacks, including a 1999 market bombing which killed 60 people and the 2004 school hostage crisis in Beslan which led to the deaths of hundreds. These issues continue to be at the forefront of coverage in both the South Ossetian and North Ossetian media, and in the Russian-language press that, ironically, communicates much of Ossetian nationalist ideology.
Against this backdrop, assertions by Georgia about regaining territorial control over South Ossetia appear to have made the region’s links to Russia only stronger. In the absence of a viable alternative, these ties are seen as a requirement for survival. South Ossetians may eventually realize the disadvantages of joining Russia’s volatile and economically depressed North Caucasus, but, for now, that argument is Georgia’s to make. After years of de facto alignment with Russia, South Ossetia’s reunification with Georgia has become less a question of political might, and more a question of cultural identity.
Editor’s Note: Daniel J Gerstle is a New York -based freelance writer who was a 2004 Summer Research Fellow for Columbia University’s Center for International Conflict Resolution covering the Caucasus and Central Asia.