South Ossetia – The Prequel

Graham Stack for Russia Profile

The South Ossetian conflict flaring up in late 1989 started the break up of Georgia. The conflict of 2008 might well seal it.

Four months after Slobodan Milosevic’s speech on the Kosovo Field June 1989 symbolised the start of the Yugloslavia conflict, Georgia’s nationalist leader Zviad Gamsakhurdia, backed by over 20,000 supporters including paramilitaries, rolled towards the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali, to assert ethnic Georgian rule over the entire territory of the republic. Ossetian groups duly blocked Gamsakhurdia’s entry to the town, and violence broke out. Andrei Sakharov, not long before his death, commented gloomily on the creation of “minor empires” in the former Soviet republics.

The standoff escalated through 1990. In April 1990, the Supreme Soviet in Moscow ruled that the ethnic autonomous territories of any republic seceding from the Soviet Union retained the right to remain in the Soviet Union. Then it was Tbilisi’s turn to pour fuel on the fire. In August 1990, the Georgian Soviet adopted a law prohibiting regional parties from participating in Georgian elections. Excluded from the political process in Georgia, South Ossetia boycotted parliamentary elections in October 1990, instead holding elections to their parliament in December 1990.

In response to the South Ossetian elections, the newly-elected Georgian parliament abolished the autonomy status of South Ossetia, declared a state of emergency in the region and in late December, imposed an economic blockade on the region that was to last to July 1992.

The conflict finally escalated into war the following month. In the first days of 1991, the Supreme Council of Georgia passed a law on the formation of the National Guard of Georgia. Then on January 5th, at the time of the Orthodox Christmas festivities, several thousand Georgian troops, police and paramilitaries entered Tskhinvali and carried out violent reprisals and atrocities against the population, ostensibly in search of arms.

The weekend war

The initial fighting took place mainly in and around Tskhinvali, around the Georgian villages, and north along the road to North Ossetia, the lifeline of the South Ossetians in the face of the Georgian blockade.

According to Nikola Cvetkovski of Caucasus Links, who has written a history of the South Ossetia conflict, the fighting in Tskhinvali initially divided the town into an Ossetian-controlled western sections and a Georgian-controlled east. But fierce resistance from Ossetian irregulars meant that already by the end of January, 1990, Georgian forces withdrew to take up positions on the heights around the city. From there they enforced a blockade that lasted almost one and a half years, and aimed at cutting the town off from heat, electricity, water and food.

Actual fighting was low intensity, deploying mostly light arms. Fighting however peaked regularly at weekends, as the so-called ‘weekend warriors’ of paramilitary formations arrived from Georgia proper. The ‘weekend warriors’ were themselves more interested in looting than fighting. As a result, military fatalities stayed low, but of the roughly 1000 Ossetians killed in the conflict, only around 100 are regarded to have been militia members: the remaining 900 were civilians. In addition, according to Alexei Zverev, ethnic conflict expert at Vrije University of Brussels, 93 villages (mostly Ossetian) were completely burned down.

Even the newly-formed Georgian national guard, intended to become the core of a new Georgian army, was recruited and financed “almost exclusively by private individuals, especially successful black-market entrepreneurs,” according to Swiss security expert Christoph Zuercher, who has written the classic account of the Georgian crisis in “The Post-Soviet Wars”.

Georgia’s second main (para)military formation prosecuting the war, the Mkhedrioni (Georgian for medieval knights), was, according to Zuercher, “created in 1989 by Jaba Ioseliani, a former patron of the Soviet underworld, and funded its activities from criminal dealings, including extortion and racketeering,” and constituted “a private army at the service of the state when it was waging war against secessionist minorities.”

“The Georgian militias—the Mkhedrioni and the National Guard—were to a very significant extent driven by the presence of private entrepreneurs of violence, undisciplined weekend warriors, who conducted frequent attacks on the civilian population and took hostages,” Zuercher continues. “But in the case of the Ossetian and Abkhazian fighters, the use of military force was not mainly motivated by private profit, but by the perceived threat to the status quo posed by an independent and nationalistic Georgia. (…). Once the Georgian militias entered their territories, Ossetians and Abkhazians saw their fears confirmed, and organized violence ceased to be an option and became a necessity,” adds Zuercher in his seminal study.

Russia appears on the scene

Until then, the Soviet Centre, in its death throes, had remained largely on the sidelines in the conflict. The Soviet leadership had apparently latterly struck a deal with Tbilisi, allowing Gamsakhurdia a free hand in South Ossetia in return for accepting Soviet supremacy. This deal was shown up during the Moscow Putsch in August 1991, when supposedly nationalist Gamsakhurdia – in sharp contrast to events in Moscow and Leningrad – meekly accepted the authority of the Provisional Committee established by the putsch, and subordinated his armed units to the Soviet Interior Ministry.

The failure of the putsch, however, destroyed Gamsakhurdia’s authority: On December 22, 1991, in the last days of the Soviet Union, approximately 500 National Guard soldiers entered Tbilisi and drove Gamsakhurdia out, marking the start of the Georgian civil war. The new interim authorities—Ioseliani (leader of the Mkhedrioni) and Kitovani (head of the National Guard), then called Eduard Shevardnadze, former Soviet foreign minister, back from Moscow to head Georgia.

The struggle for power in Tiblisi now hugely exacerbated the ongoing ethnic conflicts, as the deposed president mounted military resistance from his home region in western Georgia against the new authorities in Tbilisi – and thus triggered the Abkhasian conflict, flaring up in spring 1992 and turning to war by the summer.

The conflict constellation now also changed due to the appearance of an entirely new actor: Boris Yeltsin’s Russia. Yeltsin’s new Russia, born of the idealism of the Perestroika liberal movement, and riding high on the wave of enthusiasm following the defeat of the Putsch, was more concerned about the rights of minorities in neighbouring states than the Soviet leadership had been. Russia was also sensitive to the concerns of the North Ossetian leadership, who were inundated with refugees from the South Ossetian conflict and feared further destabilisation.

According to Alexei Zverev, this new conflict constellation made Russian intervention on the side of the South Ossetians look increasingly probable. In mid-April 1992, Georgian artillery resumed daily missile attacks on the residential quarters of Tskhinvali. Then, in 20 May 1992, unidentified gunmen, whom the Ossetians claimed were Georgians, massacred a busload of Ossetian refugees fleeing Tskhinvali.

The massacre prompted North Ossetia to cut the gas pipeline to Georgia, and elicited furious statements from Russian politicians, including chief reformer Yegor Gaidar. By June 1992, Boris Yeltsin’s administration seemed to be on the brink of intervening to protect South Ossetia.

The situation was ironically saved only by a further escalation of Georgia’s own civil war between Shevardnadze and Gamsakhurdia in Western Georgia, which was simultaneously making conflict between Tbilisi and separatist Abkhazia look imminent. In the face of this extraordinarily dangerous situation, Shevardnadze could not possibly afford to fall out with the Russians.

On 22 June 1992, Yeltsin and Shevardnadze duly met with North and South Ossetian representatives in Sochi and signed a ceasefire agreement. The agreement envisaged the deployment of joint Russian, Georgian and Ossetian peacekeeping forces. The peacekeepers moved into the region on 14 July, 1992.

In view of the civil war raging at the time in Georgia and the start of the Abkhazian conflict, no one initially gave the South Ossetian ceasefire much chance. But it held 16 years.

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