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Keystone of the Caucasus: Ignored Ossetia and Its Snow Revolution

Submitted by on January 13, 2012 – 8:56 pm 27 Comments |  
Map of the Caucasus, Showing North Ossetia-Alania and South Ossetia 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.

Google Earth Image of Darial Gorge, Georgia and North OssetiaMilitary 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.

Map of ethnic groups in the Caucasus, emphasizing Georgians and OssetiansThe 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.

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  • rumd

    Eduard Kokoity didn’t take part in the recent elections in South Ossetia. The name of the candidate backed by Moscow was Anatoly Bibilov.

    • Martin W. Lewis

      Many thanks for the correction.  I have edited the post accordingly.

  • Now I am impressed, Martin. I did not even know (like most people) about the ‘Snow Revolution’.

    I am, of course, in favor of the independence of all those small countries: Abkhazia, Ossetia and Ishkeria (Chechnya) all alike. Naturally I can’t but notice the double standards practiced by most countries and notably major powers in these matters: recognizing or not states not because of intrinsecal merits such as ethnic homogeneity or popular will but because of whether it is or not convenient for their short-sighted interests. 

    • Martin W. Lewis

      Thanks for the comment — that someone as well informed as yourself was unaware of the “snow revolution” shows that it has indeed been ignored in the global media. I also agree about self-interested “double standards” found among the major powers of the world. As far as GeoCurrents is concerned, however, we try to remain neutral on such issues as South Ossetian independence, as the goal is intellectual exploration rather than advocating certain positions. But your views on such matters are certainly welcome in the comments section — as would be those of readers who reject South Ossetian independence.  

      • In my humble opinion South-Ossetian independence leads nowhere as it can’t be a viable state without some sort of dependence. It has too little mass / body (read: future taxpayers) to (be able to) exist without some outside sponsor. The long term solution would eventually be either reconcile with Georgia (which due to its geographic location, which you start with illustrating its access challenges, would be logical once ethnic tensions can be defused) or to get united an integrated with N-Ossetia-Alania / Russian Federation. The latter being a security risk for Georgia, as per the same geography. As for Abkhazia, that would be a different matter. Due to the geography, and thus the implicit lenience towards Georgia for small scale economic exchange (read: local trade) some sort of reconciliation with Georgia has to be pursued anyways. South-Ossetia is inaccessible from the north for 6-7 months per year. They key is really reconcilliation with Georgia, and not let South-Ossetia become a Russian military base of 4000km2 (which it in effect already has become).

  • Now I am impressed, Martin. I did not even know (like most people) about the ‘Snow Revolution’.

    I am, of course, in favor of the independence of all those small countries: Abkhazia, Ossetia and Ishkeria (Chechnya) all alike. Naturally I can’t but notice the double standards practiced by most countries and notably major powers in these matters: recognizing or not states not because of intrinsecal merits such as ethnic homogeneity or popular will but because of whether it is or not convenient for their short-sighted interests. 

  • David Erschler

    As far as I understand, that lower red spot on the second map does not exist anymore — most of Ossetians were forced to leave internal Georgia in early 1990s.

    • Martin W. Lewis

      Many thanks for adding this information. That fact also speaks directly to a post that will go up later this week on the Greek area depicted in south-central  Georgia, which no longer contains many Greeks.  Ethno-linguistic mapping often fails to keep up with changes on the ground.  

      • Randy McDonald

        There has also been a certain amount of Ossetian assimilation in central , Georgia, a consequence of relatively low barriers to intermarriage and assimilation between these two Orthodox Christian peoples. This, it should be noted, does _not_ mean that Ossetian ethnonational identity in Georgia is false consciousness, merely that Ossetians–like other people–relate to their ethnic identity as circumstances permit. Had Georgian nationalism in the late 1980s not been so exclusivistic–some even now argue that the 17th century settlement of Ossetians south of the Caucasus is of such recent vintage as to make them invaders–I suspect that Ossetians could have been contented.

        • Martin W. Lewis

          Interesting points. Ethnic identity is very often “circumstantialist,” and can quickly intensify or diminish as conditions change. In the late 1980s, ethnic identities hardened in many areas of the former Communist world, Yugoslavia being the prime example. I would be very interested to find out whether similar processes played out in the North Caucasus. 

          • To some extent, ethnic identities have hardened, but they were already pretty intense before that, as many groups were deported during WWII and many didn’t return back to the Caucasus until the dissolution of the Soviet Union. More generally, the history of ethnic divisions and tensions (greatly helped by the Soviet ethnic policies under Stalin and later) go back quite far and have often been used by the Russians/Soviets to create “an enemy within”…

  • Thx for the informative and accessible post as usual! Raises interesting issue: do watersheds constitute actual borders or not? Conventional wisdom and current maps appear to say so. Digging a little deeper, as in this case here, shows it’s more complicated than that as always! A sterling example from Tucoo-Chala’s “When Islam was at the Gates of the Pyrénées”: early medieval counties straddled what later became the Franco-Spanish border, immediately west of the Basque area that still does so to today. 

    • Martin W. Lewis

      Interesting point. There is a long history in geographic thought of regarding watersheds an natural boundaries, especially in steep areas. But in places where trade across mountains is important, states (and ethnic groups) have often tried to control the passes and establish power on both sides of a given range. In reference to an earlier set of GeoCurrents posts (on Afghanistan), Nigel Allan brought up the German concept of the “Pass State,” which bears on this issue.   

    • Luis Aldamiz

      I’d say that for mountain peoples watersheds are seldom of much importance. Key is anyhow how passable are the mountains: a barrier like the Hymalayas is much more likely to be a natural ethnic and political border than passes that you (a fit trekker if not you at least) can easily climb in a matter of hours. It is very different also the viewpoint of an imperialist force like Charlemagne than that of a resisting guerrilla like the Basque militias who defeated him in 778. For the people forced to defend itself as guerrilla, mountains are a fortress and a backbone, for the imperialist forces, they are an obstacle and a likely convenient border, easy to defend once the guerrillas have been suffocated.

      I see however that this does not seem the case in the Caucasus, excepted maybe Ossetia: ethnicities are either at one or the other side of the mountains, so I presume that in this case, they behave more like the Hymalayas or the Alps than like the Western Pyrenees and Cantabrian Mountains.

      Another factor is ecological areas: the Islamic expansion was most interested in Mediterranean climatic zones and considered, quite obviously, the areas of Atlantic climate to lack interest, leaving them to more or less vassalized Christian realms (there was almost no Reconquista for most of the so-called Reconquista: it’s concentrated in the 11thn and 12th centuries: in that brief time the ethno-religious border changed from the Duero and Barcelona to a mountain area around Granada, all because the Cordoba Caliphate collapsed from inside).

      (Posting as Luis, I had issues with login and relogged with another profile – Maju)

      • Understood on contrasting Himalayan barrier and Basque sieve. What I found interesting is that counties east of the Basque country straddled the Pyrenées, as passes were relatively passable summertimes at least (my old hometown Pau for ex. was an important ford that looks rather unimpressive today, until you realise traffic flowed from south the Pyrénées according to local lore).

        Upon consolidation of Spanish and French kingdoms in the early Renaissance, those hegemonies subjugated individual nationalities within their borders, with gay disregard for ethnic or economic ties, ergo watershed borders. Templar lore indicate knights are not as mountain friendly as Basco-béarnais guerillas, so they protected pilgrimage routes that skirted mountains.

        • Luis Aldamiz

          I would never have guessed from your name that you could have any relation with Pau or the Pyrenees, Andrew.

          Knights (or in general all types of mounted troops, very specially heavy ones) were of course troops for the flatlands. Anyhow, as demonstrated by the almogavars (a Pyrenean kind of mounted infantry in spite of the Arabic name), Pyrenean light troops were able to fight heavy knights in almost any terrain by killing their horses first and forcing them to fight on foot (however they felt unable to defend fortresses).

          The Pyrenees anyhow become more of a barrier to the middle: no serious campaign ever crossed the mountains through that area: even if there are smaller passes they are privy to local-friendly forces like the one that took over Jaca in the 9th century, possibly from around Pau.

          • There is no connection indeed except that my émigré parents call it home, see:
            Thanks for the details you give below, but I still think the Pyrénées were less of a barrier: not only because medieval counties straddled it, but also Roland stopped at Roncevales the Moors who must’ve been heading north, and Wellington returned that way from his Spanish campaign (tho that was transit not combat). I’m no historian so corrections are welcome.

            As a footnote, however, Pau’s balmy climate lead to Wellington and/or other Brit generals to retire there: that brought the first casino, golf link, flying school and auto grand prix to the area before WWI. It lends Pau a certain charm in an otherwise very rural area (likewise coastal Biarritz via refugee Russian nobility).

          • Luis Aldamiz

            I’m saying the central Pyrenees, although there is the occasional exception, such as the Vall d’Aran.

            No major army ever crossed the Pyrenees but by the Catalan passes (classical, usually near the coast, I presume) or by the Basque passes (the Vandals, Alans and Swabians, but with Basque permission apparently, the final attack of the Muslim army against Aquitaine, some of Charlemagne’s expeditions, all met with tough resistance and the campaign of Napoleon, also with Basque tolerance, are the best known cases). There has never been an expedition further to the center, where the mountains are much thicker in extension, passes are rare, high and narrow and most valleys end in cul-de-sac glacial circuses surrounded by high natural walls.

          • Ok thanks for the details, val d’Aran is a lovely place BTW, and Andorra stuck in the middle has an intriguing history. What complicates things is that such Marches had only nominal subjugation, ergo the Basques and Catalans permission for army passage as you mention. The central Pyrenees both on the Foix and the Jaca side are intensely proud of their heritage, for ex. Christianity only thinly papered over local pagan mores, perhaps why Cathars did so well south of Toulouse and only there.

      • Yes, the Caucasus Mountains are more like the Alps than like the Pyrenees. Mount Elbrus is higher than Mont Blanc. Some of the best alpine skiing resorts are in the Caucasus as well…

      • Martin W. Lewis

        Yes, mountain peoples do often take advantage of mountainous topography — what seems like impossibly forbidding terrain to outsiders can seem quite traversable to locals. My own original fieldwork was in the mountains of northern Luzon in the Philippines. Here watershed are sometimes ethnic boundaries — but not to the extent that most foreign anthropologists have imagined them to be. The rugged terrain of the area prevented the Spaniards from conquering it until the late 1800s. 

  • Thx for the informative and accessible post as usual! Raises interesting issue: do watersheds constitute actual borders or not? Conventional wisdom and current maps appear to say so. Digging a little deeper, as in this case here, shows it’s more complicated than that as always! A sterling example from Tucoo-Chala’s “When Islam was at the Gates of the Pyrénées”: early medieval counties straddled what later became the Franco-Spanish border, immediately west of the Basque area that still does so to today. 

  • Dave Hayton

    I applaud the quality and timeliness of this GeoCurrents series. Two questions related to this particular post: 

    1. In the second paragraph you state of the Ossetians: ‘Today they are the only Caucasian ethnic group whose territory spans the Great Caucasus Range.’ What about the Lezghi of Dagestan/Azerbaijan? 

    2. At the end of your fourth paragraph reference is made to the Beslan tragedy of 2004. In my own reading, it seems like the ethnic tensions simmering between the Ossetians and the Ingush specifically (not Chechens or other regional Muslims at-large) may have been the catalyst – recall the 1992 Ingush-Ossetian conflict. Are you suggesting that the incident might more properly be interpreted from a religious grid than an ethnic one?

    Thank you for your time!

    • Dave:
      Thank you for your comments — as I responded in the other post, the point about Lezgins on both sides of the Caucasus mountain range is well-taken.
      I will have Martin respond to the Beslan question…

  • Pingback: The Role of the Caucasus in Russian Cultural and Intellectual History « Cultural Geography « GeoCurrents()

  • Iron Man

    Ossetia forever!!! F*ck georgian cunts!

  • kabouter plop

    Three years on, we can see which shape this “South Ossetia independence” takes: just short of formal (de jure) annexation of South-Ossetia into the Russian Federation (which the de facto authorities in S-O actively seeks since the latest carousels). The conclusion may be justified that the Ossetians have just been used for a land grab and geopolitics and not necessarily the altruistic “protecting ethnic minorities from fascist thugs”.

    A few components and ingredients for that case can be recognized:
    – As the ethnic distribution maps shows, there are Ossetians living in “Trialeti Ossetia” (the area south of Gori). These people settled in the Georgian province of Trialeti over the course of the 19th century, migrating from Samachablo (aka South-Ossetia).
    There are still up to 10.000 living there and no problems are reported. Somewhere else in your site you have changed the ethnic composition picture amateuristically giving the impression no Ossetians live in Trialeti.
    As is typical for ethnic conflicts in regions where mixed groups live: it is stoked through outside politics, for the intent of certain political gains, not necessarily because it really exists on the local level.

    – South of Trialeti Ossetia is Samtskhe Javakheti, the Armenian populated region of Georgia, mostly in the eastern part where Armenians form a majority.(the green colored part in your map).

    – Armenia recently entered the Eurasian Customs/Economic Union, Putin’s pet project as counter to the EU. Armenia was successfully pressed in the summer of 2013 to decline the standing EU offer to start the Association Agreement process, over threats that Azerbaijan would be supplied with more weapons, and that Russia might leave Gyumri, and what else.

    – Armenia does not have a land border with Russia for a proper functioning of a Customs Union (nor a direct sea connection, only by air). Armenia hosts a major Russian military base in Gyumri that is not allowed by Georgia to exchange its equipment overland through Georgia. Armenia’s import/export is dependent on Georgia for transit to seaports or the land border at Kazbeg (to Vladikavkaz).

    – Russia is actively pursuing an economic and energy corridor with Iran through Armenia, for which it desires and pursues direct land transport corridors.

    – Russia and Armenia press Georgia and Abkhazia to start working on (renovating) the “Abkhaz” railway, disrupted since 1993 between Zugdidi and Sukhumi, Russia unilaterally started reconstructing roads in the northern Caucasus from Dagestan to the Georgian border with the intent of routing them to Armenia, through the central part of Georgia.

    – Various Russian “think tanks” with ties to the Kremlin / Duma openly debate, publish about (the necessity of) creating a direct land border between Armenia and Russia. They specifically name a ‘greater’ South-Ossetia (incorporating Trialeti and parts east of current South-Ossetia) and Javakheti as means to create that, essentially chopping Georgia in 2 (which de facto will nullify the viability of the current Georgian state). One could even argue that in the long run the western part would be absorbed into extended Abkhazia and Ajaria, potentially both as part of the Russian Federation, and a rump state and landlocked Georgia could remain.

    – Iranian economic missions have been informed as much about the “direct landborder” process and the infrastructure works as well.

    Anyone who thinks Russia is a great protector of people who want self-determination is just fooling oneself. It is too good to be true. One just has to look at the original desire in the early 90s in Chechnya, before it became a jihadist bastion. Creating all sorts of proxy (and semi independent) entities in the perifery of Russia has historically always been a tool of power over people, and a lever on other 3rd parties. In the last 25 years Russia has never contributed anything to real reconcilliation between local people in Transnistria (vs Moldova), Nagorno-Karabakh (vs Azerbaijan/Armenia), South-Ossetia and Abkhazia (vs Georgia), and more recently it started to boot out Tatars once again from the Crimea, by restricting the rights they had under the (the so called “fascist”) Ukrainian government.

    Working on reconciliation is the real challenge, not recognizing yet another mono-ethnic non-viable region.