Why has fighting broken out?
The South Ossetians and Georgians have been sniping at each other for several weeks and patience on both sides has finally snapped. South Ossetia and Georgia’s other breakaway region, Abkhazia, have enjoyed de facto independence since the early 1990s but Tbilisi has never recognised the loss of its territory. The dispute between Georgia and the two regions was called “the frozen conflict” because the issues remain unresolved, but there was no fighting. The heat began to rise this year when the west recognised Kosovo, against Russia’s advice. The South Ossetians and Abkhazians argued that if Kosovo could be independent, then so could they.
What is the basis of the region’s claim to independence?
The Ossetians are descendants of a tribe called the Alans. Like the Georgians, the Ossetians are Orthodox Christians but they have their own language. In Soviet times, the Ossetians had an autonomous region within Georgia. The Georgians say the Ossetians cooperated with the Bolsheviks and tended to be more pro-Soviet. Their ethnic kin live across the border in the Russian region of North Ossetia, so today they feel more drawn to Russia than to Georgia and many have Russian passports.
Abkhazia on the Black Sea coast was also an autonomous region of Georgia in Soviet times. It has a mixed population of Abkhaz, Mingrelians, Greeks, Armenians, Russians and Georgians and a small but significant Muslim minority. Thousands of ethnic Georgians fled their homes in Abkhazia during the civil war in the early 90s and now live as refugees in Tbilisi and Moscow.
Why has Russia become involved?
Russia says it cannot stand aside because many of the people in the breakaway regions are its citizens. Georgia accuses Russia of meddling in its internal affairs and supporting the separatists, although Russia’s peacekeepers are supposed to be in a neutral role. Georgia accuses Russia of double standards in suppressing its own separatist rebellion in Chechnya while encouraging separatists in Georgia. Russia has become more engaged in the region since Georgia expressed an interest in joining Nato, the very idea of which appalls Moscow.
What might happen next?
So far, this has been a proxy war, with Russia encouraging the separatists, but Russia and Georgia could find themselves in direct conflict. Russia’s prime minister, Vladimir Putin, today accused Georgia of aggression and warned that a response was inevitable. Georgia said Russian jets had started bombing its territory.
What are the wider implications?
The conflict could widen out further still, with former Soviet republics supporting Russia and the US and Europe backing Georgia. The root of the problem is that the world community cannot agree on rules for the independence of small regions.