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The 1991–1992 South Ossetian War was fought as part of the Georgian-Ossetian conflict between Georgianmarker government forces and ethnic Georgian militias on one side and the forces of South Ossetiamarker and ethnic Ossetian militias who wanted South Ossetia to secede from Georgia and become an independent state, supported by individual Russian troops, on the other. The war ended with a Russian-brokered ceasefire, signed on on 24 June 1992, which established the a joint peacekeeping force and left South Ossetia divided between the rivaling authorities.

Background

Following the breakdown of the czarist regimemarker in Russia, South Ossetians allied with the Russian Bolsheviks fought a war against the newly independent Menshevik Georgia. Initially Georgia was successful, but in 1921, the Red Army conquered the country. South Ossetia became an autonomous oblast in the soviet republic of Georgia. During soviet times, the relations between ethnic Ossetes and Georgians were peaceful, with a high rate of interaction and intermarriages.

In 1989, around 98,000 people lived in South Ossetia. Of these, 66.61% were Ossetian and 29.44% Georgian. Another 99,000 Ossetians lived in other parts of Georgia.

At the end of the Soviet Unionmarker, Georgia became independent again under the leadership of Zviad Gamsakhurdia, who pursued a nationalistic agenda. This was mainly directed at Soviet rule, but also at the expense of minority groups in Georgia. South Ossetians organised as well and expressed national aspirations: the Supreme Council of South Ossetia demanded a change of status to autonomous republic, a move declared illegal by the Supreme Council of Georgia. On November 23, 1989, Gamsakhurdia organised a demonstration of Georgians that was to happen in Tskhinvalimarker, the capital of South Ossetia. South Ossetians prevented this by blocking the road and several people were wounded on clashes. In the following months, the South Ossetians started arming themselves.

The 1990 election to the Georgian Supreme Council, boycotted by South Ossetians, was won by Gamsakhurdia. In response, South Ossetians organised a vote for a South Ossetian parliament. Reacting to this, the Georgian Supreme Council voted to abolish the South Ossetian Autonomous Oblast as a separate administrative unit. Towards the end of 1990, the situation of Georgians in Tskhinvali worsened sharply. South Ossetian thugs would beat up Georgian boys at school and others were forbidden to speak Georgian. In December 1990, Tbilisi declared a state of emergency in South Ossetia and troops of the Georgian and Russian Interior Ministry (MVD) were dispatched to South Ossetia. The commander of the Georgian Interior Ministry troops was appointed as mayor of Tskhinvali. Georgia also imposed an economic blockade on South Ossetia. A military conflict was immediately ahead.

Combatants

South Ossetian forces consisted of militia, volunteers from North Ossetia, Russian troops, and former Soviet soldiers. The Soviets had been stationed in Georgia when it was part of the Soviet Union. When the fighting started, these soldiers chose to fight for South Ossetia. There were some incidents of overt help from military units of the newly formed Russian Federationmarker as well.

In early 1990, South Ossetia had only 300-400 poorly armed fighters. But in six months the South Ossetian force grew to 1,500 full-time fighters plus 3,500 volunteers. Georgia's forces were in much poorer shape. The ragtag Georgian forces composed of ethnic Georgians were not as well trained and equipped as their opponents. The Georgian National Guard that fought in the war was formed in January 1991, just before the fighting started. It was supposed to be a 12,000 strong force based on conscription, but because of financial difficulties it had to be constructed from volunteers instead.

The War

South Ossetian civilians killed by Georgian forces in May, 1992 (photos from the site of RES information agency of South Ossetia)
On the night of 5 January 1991, 6,000 armed Georgians entered Tskhinvali, causing destruction and killing civilians. The Ossetians responded by firing at Georgian schools and houses in the city , while Georgians attacked Ossetian villages . After fierce street fighting, the Georgian forces were repelled and driven out of Tshkinvali by South Ossetian troops.

The fighting in Tskhinvali first resulted in a divided town: An Ossetian-controlled western part and a Georgian-controlled eastern part. Towards the end of January, the Georgians withdrew to the hills around the city according to the Russian-mediated ceasefire. However, the economic blockade of South Ossetia was kept in place.

The Georgians made three assaults on Tskhinvali, in February and March 1991 and in June, 1992. The most intense period of war was in March and April 1991. After a period of relative calm in July and August, violence resumed in mid-September, when Gamsakhurdia ordered the Georgian National Guard once again to advance into South Ossetia. However the National Guard had little interest in protracted warfare in a province with no lootable resources. Only a few detachments followed the order to attack, and they were repelled by the South Ossetian militia. During the offensive in June, the Georgian National Guard burned and destroyed up to 80% percent of dwellings in Tskhinvali. Georgia imposed a blockade on South Ossetia by disconnecting electricity blockading the road to Tskhinvalimarker, while the Ossetians blockaded Georgian villages. Several atrocities occurred on both sides. The fighting left hundreds killed and wounded, with South Ossetian villages as well as Georgian houses and schools in Tskhinvali attacked and burned down. Georgian forces sat in the hills around Tskhinvali and besieged the city. Other fighting took place around the city in the nearby villages and along the road to North Ossetiamarker.

Map of South Ossetia after the war, showing villages under Georgian and under South Ossetian control


In Spring of 1992, the fighting escalated again, with sporadic Russianmarker involvement. However, in March 1992, Gamsakhurdia was ousted and replaced by Edward Shevardnadze. Soon after, Gamsakhurdia loyalists staged an armed rebellion. Furthermore, the conflict with Georgia's other, bigger, separatist region Abkhasia, escalated into a war in 1992. As a result, Shevardnadze had an interest to end the conflict in South Ossetia and signed the Russian-brokered Sochi agreement.

The ceasefire agreement left South Ossetia divided into areas controlled by Georgia and areas controlled by the unrecognised government of South Ossetia. It also created the Joint Control Commission (including Georgia, Russia, North Ossetia and South Ossetia) and, under JCC mandate, introduced the joint peacekeeping forces (JPKF), made up from Georgian, Russian and Ossetian soldiers. A small number of OSCE monitors was also deployed in the area.

The military action of the conflict was "confused and anarchic". Neither side has disciplined armed formations and commanders and soldiers were often acting in their own interests. Military groups were controlled by political factions and not accountable to the respective governments. This led to the violation of ceasefires, taking of hostages and bombardment of civilian targets.

According to Human Rights Watch, during the war Georgian paramilitary groups committed acts of violence against Ossetian civilians within South Ossetia that were motivated by the desire to expel Ossetians and reclaim villages for Georgia, and by sheer revenge against the Ossetian people. Between 60 and 100 villages were burned down, destroyed by Georgian forces or otherwise abandoned. Several villages were ethnically cleansed by Georgian forces. On the other side, Georgians living in Ossetian controlled territory were "easy targets": Houses by Georgians were singled out, looted and burned down.

During the war, approximately 1,000 people died. It also led to large refugee flows: About 100,000 ethnic Ossetians fled from South Ossetia and Georgia proper, mainly into North Ossetiamarker (part of Russia). A further 23,000 ethnic Georgians fled from South Ossetia and settled in other Georgian areas. The flow of refugees into Northern Ossetia aggravated the tense ethnic situation there and played a significant role in the Ossetian–Ingush conflict.

References


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