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South Ossetia conflict FAQs


Was Georgia's response primarily due to the conflict along the Georgian/Ossetian border, or was it simply an attempt to forcibly maintain Ossetia as part of Georgia?

Tensions had been brewing on the border in the weeks leading up to Georgia's attack on the night of August 7/8. However, it is clear that the offensive was not merely an escalation of smaller-scale fighting, but an attempt to seize control over the province.

In the week leading up to Georgia's attack, the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali had seen sporadic shelling and skirmishes. Six South Ossetians were killed and another 15 wounded in a Georgian attack on the night of August 2. Tskhinvali said 18 people were wounded in heavy shelling on the night of August 6.

Hours before Georgia launched its artillery bombardment of Tskhinvali, President Mikheil Saakashvili claimed he was prepared to enter into "any kind of talks," in order to find a solution to the conflict, and had declared a unilateral ceasefire.

Georgia's subsequent actions showed that these goals were not genuine.

A key project of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's presidency had been to bring South Ossetia, along with Abkhazia, which broke away during wars in the early 1990s, back under central control.

In the run-up to the attack, Georgia had accused South Ossetia of attacks on border villages, and South Ossetia admitted to shooting down several Georgian drones illegally entering its airspace.

How much of the problem is due to cultural differences between Georgians and Ossetians?

Georgians and Ossetians have a long and complex shared history stretching back hundreds of years, but are ethnically and linguistically distinct. Periods of peaceful co-existence have been interspersed with violence from both sides. However, the current conflict is more to do with the peripheral position South Ossetia came to occupy within the Georgian republic during Soviet times, and its consequent refusal to become part of the new Georgian state when the Soviet Union collapsed.

A precedent to the post-Soviet independence wars can be seen in early Soviet times, when the Ossetians decided to join the Russian Soviet Republic in 1918, refusing to become part of the newly-created Democratic Republic of Georgia. In response to this, Georgia launched several punitive expeditions in Ossetia.

In 1921, Soviet Russia united with the Georgian Soviet Republic, of which South Ossetia then became a part, as an autonomous region.

During the 19th and early 20th Centuries, parts of South Ossetia had been within the Tbilisi and Kutai guberniyas (provinces) of the Russian Empire.

The Ossetian people form a language group that is part of the Iranian branch of the Indo-European family, and has nothing in common with the languages of neighboring groups, including Georgian. Like Georgians, South Ossetians are all Orthodox Christians. The vast majority speaks fluent Georgian, and mixed Ossetian-Georgian marriages are common.

What proportion of the population in Ossetia is Russian?

The number of ethnic Russians living in South Ossetia has been and remains fairly low, but most residents of the province now have Russian citizenship.

According to the 1989 census (the last Soviet census), Ossetians accounted for around 60 percent, Georgians 20 percent, Armenians 10 percent, and 5 percent were Russians, or approximately 5,000 people. It is unlikely that there are now more than 2,000 ethnic Russians in South Ossetia. However, of the population of 80,000, around 70,000 have Russian citizenship.

What motivated the Georgian government to bombard an Ossetian city?

President Saakashvili gave the order to launch a military strike on South Ossetia with the goal of bringing the breakaway region back under Georgian control.

Russia's leaders have accused the United States of encouraging Georgia to launch the attack by arming it, and have even suggested that the U.S. had the upcoming elections in mind, and wanted to give Republican candidate John McCain a boost.


What has Georgia gained by doing so?

In its goal of bringing South Ossetia back into the fold, Georgia clearly failed. Russia has said its decision to recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states is final and irreversible, so it appears that Georgia has permanently lost any chance it may have had of regaining control over the republics.

In addition to this, Saakashvili has destroyed relations with Russia, potentially a valuable economic partner, and seen his military crushed. Numerous civilians, which Georgia sees as their own countrymen, lost their lives in the Georgian attack.

However, politically Saakashvili garnered strong support from Western powers during the conflict, in particular the United States, which has pledged at least $1 billion in reconstruction aid, and has promised to help Georgia rebuild its military.

With the overwhelming majority of Western media outlets siding with Georgia in the conflict, top Russian officials were forced to admit that Saakashvili won the propaganda war.

Did Georgia fail to realize that Russia would have to strike back?

The Georgian leadership underestimated Russia's reaction to Georgia's military offensive against South Ossetia, and turned out to be entirely unprepared for Russia's response.

Georgian Deputy Defense Minister Batu Kutelia admitted this in an interview with the Financial Times, saying: "Unfortunately, we attached a low priority to this... We did not prepare for this kind of eventuality."

Explaining why he didn't believe Russia would strike back, he said: "I didn't think it likely that a member of the UN Security Council and the OSCE would react like this."

What could have been done to avoid this tragedy?

Before the conflict, Russia had been looking for an international solution to avert violence. Hours before the Georgian attack, Russia had been working to secure a United Nations Security Council statement calling for a renunciation of force by both Georgia and South Ossetia.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the statement, which could have averted bloodshed, was blocked by Western powers.

The minister said Russia had repeatedly warned of the dangers of arming Georgia, and had had warned U.S. partners that their program of arming and training the Georgian military could lead to a situation where the Georgian leadership would decide to use this new potential in seeking a forceful solution to conflicts on its territory.

Lavrov said the U.S. had given assurances that they would not allow the situation to develop along these lines.

"Clearly, they did not manage to restrain Mikheil Saakashvili from artificially solving all problems by means of war," he said.


Why does Russia call Georgia's attack an act of genocide?

According to the UN definition, drawn up after WWII, the killing of a group of people is classed as genocide if it is committed "with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group."

South Ossetia says that around 1,500 of its civilians were killed in the Georgian attack, out of the republic's 70,000 residents.

Russian prosecutors, on orders from President Dmitry Medvedev, are currently gathering evidence to support allegations of genocide committed by Georgia against South Ossetians, but have not given a detailed statement on the legal grounds for the accusation.

South Ossetians have sent over 300 lawsuits to the International Criminal Court in The Hague seeking to bring Georgian authorities to justice for genocide.

In turn, Georgia has filed a lawsuit against Russia at the same court for alleged ethnic cleansing during three military interventions in South Ossetia and Abkhazia from 1993 to 2008.

Why was the Russian military intervention inevitable?

Russia had repeatedly warned Georgia that it would resort to force to protect its citizens, which most South Ossetian residents are, and has cited article 51 of the UN charter on the right of self-defense in justifying its actions.

Was the Russian response proportionate?

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has said that Russia has been entirely proportionate in its military response to Georgia's attack on Russian citizens and peacekeepers. Russia's tactical objective has been to force Georgian troops out of the region, which is off limits to them under international agreements. Despite Georgia's assertion that it had imposed a unilateral ceasefire, Russian peacekeepers and supporting troops remained under continued attack - a fact confirmed by observers and journalists in the region. Russia had no choice but to target the military infrastructure being used to sustain the Georgian offensive. Russia says its response has been targeted, proportionate, and legitimate.

Lavrov later admitted however that during the military operation "to force Georgia to accept peace" both Russia and Georgia used excessive force.

 "All the sides acted excessively, but it was war and when you are on a march to aid Tskhinvali and under fire at night, your return fire cannot be absolutely accurate," Lavrov told a news conference, when asked about the scale of destruction in Georgian villages bordering South Ossetia.

Both Russia and Georgia have been accused by the U.S.-based group Human Rights Watch of "indiscriminate attacks" on civilians during the fighting.

Are parallels with Kosovo justified?

Serbian Prime Minister Mirko Cvetkovic has said the events leading up to Russia's recognition of the two Georgian breakaway republics were a knock-on effect of Western powers' recognition of Kosovo's independence.

Russia, Serbia's key ally, refused to recognize Kosovo as a sovereign state after the predominantly ethnic Albanian province declared its independence in February. Moscow at the time rejected Western powers' claims that Kosovo was a ‘special case,' and said that recognition would fuel separatist movements in other countries.

Cvetkovic told the Belgrade daily Politika: "We had warned that the recognition of Kosovo's unilaterally declared independence could cause a domino effect. Unfortunately, this is now happening."

Russian Premier Vladimir Putin said that Europe had backed the U.S. and supported Kosovo's declaration of independence in February, while a UN resolution on Serbia's territorial integrity was "thrown in the garbage."


What would be the consequences of Russia-NATO confrontation?

Russia and NATO have frozen cooperation over the crisis in Georgia. There is unlikely to be a military confrontation due to Russia's nuclear deterrent. Although NATO has expressed support for both Georgia and Ukraine's membership bids, many analysts feel that the military alliance would be unable to accept them without fundamentally altering the nature of the organization. NATO member states are bound to defend one another in the event of any attack on a fellow state, and it seems unlikely that European member states such as Germany, France and Italy would be willing to go to war with Russia over Georgia. Therefore, if the two former Soviet republics were to be accepted into the organization, it would lose much of its meaning.



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