South Ossetia profile - Overview

  • 12 March 2015
  • From the section Europe
Map of South Ossetia

Mountainous South Ossetia, which is officially part of Georgia, is separated from North Ossetia in Russia by the border between the two countries running high in the Caucasus Mountains. Much of the region lies more than 1000 metres above sea level.

Long a source of tension in the region, South Ossetia was the focus of a full-blown war between Russia and Georgia in 2008. In the aftermath, its 1992 declaration independence from Georgia and was recognised by Russia, although only a few other countries followed suit.

South Ossetia is inhabited mostly by Ossetians who speak a language remotely related to Persian. Georgians account for less than one-third of the population.

Georgia is adamant that there can be no compromise over the status of South Ossetia to the extent that it avoids the use of the name South Ossetia, which it sees as implying political bonds with North Ossetia.

Insisting that North Ossetia is, in fact, the only Ossetia, Tbilisi prefers to call South Ossetia by the historic Georgian name of Samachablo or, more recently, Tskhinvali Region.

South Ossetians celebrate Russian recognition of their territory in 2008

In August 2008 Georgia's efforts to regain control of the area suffered a crippling blow when Russia - the South Ossetian separatists' military backers - defeated a Georgian incursion into South Ossetia in a bloody five-day conflict.


The Ossetians are believed to be descended from tribes which migrated into the area from Asia many hundreds of years ago and settled in what is now North Ossetia.

As the Russian empire expanded into the area in the 18th and 19th centuries, the Ossetians did not join other peoples of the North Caucasus in putting up fierce resistance.

By tradition, the Ossetians have had good relations with Russians and were regarded as loyal citizens, first of the Russian empire and later of the Soviet Union.

They sided with the Kremlin when Bolshevik forces occupied Georgia in the early 1920s and, as part of the carve-up which followed, the South Ossetian Autonomous Region was created in Georgia and North Ossetia was formed in Russia.

Violence flares

In the twilight of the Soviet Union, as Georgian nationalist Zviad Gamsakhurdia came to prominence in Tbilisi, separatist sentiment burgeoned in South Ossetia.

After several outbreaks of violence between Georgians and Ossetians, the region declared its intention to secede from Georgia in 1990 and, in 1992, independence.

The collapse of the USSR and Georgian independence in 1991 only strengthened South Ossetia's determination to break with Tbilisi.

Sporadic violence involving Georgian irregular forces and Ossetian fighters continued until the summer of 1992 when agreement on the deployment of Georgian, Ossetian and Russian peacekeepers was reached.

Political stalemate followed. Separatist voices became less strident during President Shevardnadze's rule in Georgia, but the issues returned to the foreground when Mikhail Saakashvili replaced him as president.

South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoity welcomed Russian troops in August 2008

Making clear his intention to bring the breakaway regions to heel, Mr Saakashvili offered South Ossetia dialogue and autonomy within the Georgian state.

But his offer fell far short of separatist demands, and in 2006 South Ossetians overwhelmingly voted to restate their demand for independence in a referendum that Georgia did not recognise.

Tensions came to head in early August 2008, when, after nearly a week of clashes between Georgian troops and separatist forces, Georgia launched a concerted air and ground assault attack on South Ossetia, briefly gaining control of Tskhinvali.

Declaring its citizens to be under under attack, as most South Ossetians have Russian passports, Moscow sent in troops and launched air attacks on the Georgian forces.

Within days Russian forces had swept the Georgians out of both South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and then proceeded to occupy parts of Georgia, causing panic in Tbilisi.


Following Western protests, Russia pulled its forces back towards South Ossetia and Abkhazia under a cease-fire agreement, but days later proceeded formally to recognise both South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states.

Internationally, only Russian's Latin-American allies Venezuela and Nicaragua have recognised South Ossetian independence, apart from a few Pacific island states.

In April 2009, Russia bolstered its position in South Ossetia by signing a five-year agreement to take formal control of its frontiers with Georgia proper, as well as those of Abkhazia.

In 2015, Russia and South Ossetia planned to sign an "alliance and integration agreement" on closer collaboration on defence, security and foreign relations, including the abolition of border checkpoints.

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