If the arch of the Great Caucasus can be said to have a keystone, it would have to be Ossetia. This east-west range presents a formidable barrier to traffic between southern Russia and the Middle East, as it is pierced by few negotiable passes. By far the most important route across the mountains extends along the Darial Gorge through the so-called Caucasian Gates, which passes directly through Ossetia. After seizing northern Ossetia in the late 1700s, Russian empire builders founded the fortress-city of Vladikavkaz at the northern terminus of this route; the city’s name literally means “ruler of the Caucasus.” In 1799, Russian engineers began building the inordinately expensive Georgian Military Road through the Darial Gorge. This roadway allowed Russia in 1801 to annex Georgia, which had been recently devastated by an Iranian invasion, and hence to dominate the Caucasus over most of the next two centuries.
Military control of the Caucasian Gates passed among several imperial powers over the centuries. For many hundreds of years, however, the pass and its environs have been the territory of the Ossetians, a people generally regarded to be the descendants of the medieval Alans. From the 700s to the 1200s, the powerful kingdom of Alania ruled a broad area of the north-central Caucasus and the adjacent plains to the north, profiting handsomely from trans-Caucasian trade. Alania never recovered from the blows of the Mongols in the 1200s and 1300s, but the Ossetians remained ensconced in their remote mountain valleys. Today they are the only Caucasian ethnic group whose territory spans the Great Caucasus Range. North Ossetia-Alania forms a semi-autonomous Russian republic, while South Ossetia is a self-declared independent country whose territory is considered by most of the international community to belong to Georgia.
Events in Ossetia rarely make the international news. In 2008, South Ossetia briefly made headlines when the Russian army moved in to block Georgia from reclaiming the area. Over the next two years, a few sources noted South Ossetia’s declaration of independence, as well as its official acknowledgment by a handful of countries other than Russia, specifically Venezuela, Nicaragua, Tuvalu, and Nauru (with Russia paying Nauru an estimated fifty million dollars US for the gesture). Several years earlier (2004), the Beslan School Hostage Crisis in North Ossetia received widespread attention—as well it should: over 1,100 persons, mostly children, were taken hostage by Chechen and Ingush militants, and some 385 died when Russian security forces stormed the school. The crisis heightened the power of Russia’s federal government and helped Vladimir Putin cement his iron grip on power. Yet most international news stories framed the event strictly as part of the Russian-Chechen conflict, rarely mentioning the fact that the victims were mostly Ossetians, not Russians, and seldom noting the possibility that the attackers meant to intensify a local conflict pitting the mostly Christian Ossetians against their Muslim neighbors.
More recently, South Ossetia’s “Snow Revolution,” as it was dubbed by the Russian press, went almost unnoticed outside of the region. This conflict emerged in December 2011 after the South Ossetian Supreme Court nullified the presidential election of opposition leader Alla Dzhioyeva in favor of the Moscow-backed candidate, Anatoly Bibilov. Dzhioyeva proceeded to lead massive street protests as thousands of her followers “camped out for 10 days in sub-zero temperatures on the central square in Tskhinvali, the republic’s capital, to protest that Supreme Court ruling.” Anger in South Ossetia had evidently been building for some time, focused on the authoritarianism and corruption of the outgoing regime of Eduard Kokoity. A political standoff ensued between supporters of the two leaders, punctuated by calls for renewed Russian intervention. In the end, Kokoity stepped down in favor of a caretaker government, and new elections were scheduled for March 25, 2012—shortly after the upcoming Russian presidential contest.
Ossetia may seem to outsiders like a small, obscure, and unimportant place. North Ossetia covers only 3,000 square miles (8,000 square kilometers) and is home to only 700,000 people, while South Ossetia is half that size and contains only a tenth the population. But despite its modest extent, Ossetia is geopolitically significant, sitting at the crux of the restive Caucasus region, and embroiled in a conflict that involves not just the Russian Federation but also the United States and its allies. After the 2008 war, the U.S. government suspended the sales of military equipment to Georgia, but in December 2011, the American Congress passed a bill featuring a provision calling on the U.S. to normalize military relations with Georgia, including the sale of weapons. This move was denounced by both Russia and South Ossetia, with the South Ossetian foreign minister claiming that it would “push” Georgia to engage in renewed aggression against the break-away statelet. Georgia, of course, was pleased. The Georgian government insists that South Ossetia is an integral part of its own territory and worries about the threat posed by Russian troops stationed in the break-away republic.
The conflict between the Georgians and the Ossetians is made more complicated by the geographical distribution of the two groups. As can be seen in the map to the left, the territory occupied by the Georgians is elongated east to west and is almost pinched off in the middle, while that of the Ossetians runs north to south, almost cutting the Georgian zone in two. As long as relations between the Georgians and the Ossetians are hostile, this unusual pattern enhances the vulnerability of each group.
Beyond its international significance today, Ossetia’s world-historical role was once much greater, as we shall see in the next GeoCurrents post.