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An Introduction to Breakaway Regions of the Former Soviet Union
(Released January 2009)

  by Fiona Allison  


Key Citations




Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia


map of Georgia
Georgia has two breakaway regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which have proved difficult for the tiny state, with a population of just over 4.5 million, to cope with.2 During the twentieth century sporadic outbreaks of serous violence between the ethnic groups and the Georgians had occurred in these two regions. The origins of the Abkhazian people are unknown, although the Abkhaz language is a Caucasian one. Their religion makes it hard to place their origins because some are Eastern Orthodox and others are Sunni Muslim. The Ossetians are an Iranic people although they are mainly Christian. The national language is known as Ossetic but virtually all Ossetians speak Russian. When Georgia briefly gained independence from Tsarist Russia in the confusion of the Russian revolution, the ethnic minorities were given special status and Abkhazia was granted autonomy. However, faced with Bolshevik rule, Georgian nationalism grew and the minorities once again were threatened. The Russian Bolsheviks easily exploited the tense situation in Georgia, associating the national Georgian government with the rival Mensheviks. Between the years 1918-1920 a number of bloody uprisings occurred in South Ossetia between the Ossetians and the Georgian National Guard. The Russian Bolsheviks supported the Ossetian separatists. During these battles it is estimated that approximately 5,000 people were killed. Controversy remains over the conflict, as Ossetians claim that Georgia was pursuing a strategy of ethnic cleansing in the Ossetia region, an accusation Georgia stringently denies. By 1921 the Ossetians were aiding the Red Army, which was advancing into Georgia to reincorporate the country back in to Russian domain. Although Ossetia was granted Autonomous Region status and Abkhazia became an Autonomous Republic, policies were put in place by the Secretary of the Georgian Communist Party, Lavrentii Beria, to "Georgianise" the residents; for example, all ethnic language schools were closed down in the regions, thus fuelling further anger amongst the minorities. This was at a time when other SSR's were having their language and alphabets "Cyrillicized."

Map of South Ossetia
South Ossetia
Photo of Zviad Gamsakhurdia
Zviad Gamsakhurdia, First President of the Republic of Georgia in the post-Soviet era
Throughout the Cold War ethnic relations in Georgia remained fragile, but it was at the collapse of the Soviet Union that they deteriorated. The ethnic minorities in Georgia were becoming more alienated as Georgian nationalism grew at the prospect of independence and the end of Russian dominance. The abolition of the South Ossetian autonomous region by the Georgian government in December 1990 was justified by the Ossetians' "settler status." The Georgian government asserted that Ossetians only began to arrive in Georgia in the nineteenth century and that they were illegally granted an autonomous region by the Bolsheviks in 1922 as a reward for their anti-Georgian activity during the civil war of 1918-1921. In 1990 the Georgian President, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, called on South Ossetians to return to their "real" homeland in neighbouring North Ossetia in Russia.3 Little evidence supported the claim that South Ossetians didn't belong in Georgia, which appeared to be a move to further quash any minority rights. There were several sporadic outbreaks of violence between Ossetians and Georgian authorities that year, and in 1991 these tensions escalated into a war lasting until 1992, leaving an estimated 3,000 people dead with many more injured and displaced.

As South Ossetia has turned increasingly towards its counterpart North Ossetia in Russia for support, Georgia has turned to the West. This has intensified since the 2003 election of President Mikhail Saakashvili, who has sought to forge closer ties with the United States and NATO. President Saakashvili has been outspoken and clear in his determination that Abkhazia and South Ossetia will always remain part of Georgia and their independence will never be granted nor recognised. Georgia has had its military budget boosted by funds from the United States and its military has been trained by US forces, which has greatly concerned the minorities. The two world powers thus have a stake in Georgia: with Russian support for South Ossetia against Western support for Georgia, there is a distinct risk that a relatively small disputed territory will fuel international political conflict. Currently it is doubtful that the South Ossetian issue will be resolved any time soon. It has been an area of conflict for over a century and for the foreseeable future that seems unlikely to change.

map of Abkhazia
Abkhazia, too, has seen its share of violence with the ethnic Abkhaz pitted against the Georgians. Although Abkhazia had been granted autonomy status in 1931, Georgian was made the official language of the region in the 1930s, and many Georgians were resettled there to dilute the Abkhaz population, although this only increased tensions. Because of these measures, by 1991 only a fifth of the population of Abkhazia were ethnic Abkhaz, the remainder being made up mostly by Georgians.4 During 1992 and 1993 conflict between the two was particularly brutal, and this time Georgian forces accused the Abkhazians of genocide against the Georgian population. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) officially declared that the Abkhazian forces and their allies pursued a strategy of ethnic cleansing. In many conflicts however, atrocities were committed by both sides. The Abkhazians were supported by large numbers of volunteers from Chechnya and the North Caucasus. Georgia claims that Russia also lent its support to Abkhazia, another factor which is disputed today. During this brief but horrific conflict tens of thousands of people were killed and around a quarter of a million Georgians fled from Abkhazia, of whom a significant number perished in the difficult terrain and cold weather.

Peacekeeping soldiers in the snow
The OSCE Mission to Georgia's unarmed Military Monitors in the Georgian-Abkhaz area
Abkhazia adopted its own constitution in 1994 and declared independence officially in 1999, although this has not been recognised by any other country, which has made its declaration effectively meaningless. United Nations and Russian peacekeepers remain in the area, although the peace is a fragile one with sporadic shootings and kidnappings. There seems to be no end in sight to this situation as Abkhazia has also turned towards Moscow for support, while Georgia has vowed to never recognise the region as independent. Another stalemate has been reached.

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