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Georgian-South Ossetian Conflict

Is secession a viable solution?
Tathyana Mello Amaral
Brown University
Miles Campbell
Ryan Saadeh
Ethan Shire
Fall 2018

This paper assesses the viability of secession as a possible solution for the Georgian-South Ossetian conflict.

The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 resulted in the creation of weak and unstable states that sought to establish their identity and place in the world. It triggered a wave of pervasive ethno-nationalism in Eastern Europe, led to a number of lasting military conflicts, and brought about the question of self-determination of minor ethnic groups like the Armenians, Chechens, and Kosovians. The Yugoslav Wars marked an important turning point in the history of the post-Soviet region because it resulted in the secession of Kosovo from Serbia in 2008 and created legal precedent for separatist groups. While the right to secede offers an answer to the resolution of ethnic conflicts, some scholars and theorists find it troubling. [1] The dispute between Georgia and ethnic Ossetians of the Transcaucasian region, now known as South Ossetia, highlights how the right to secede is still a point of controversy in international law.

Historical Background: Nature of the Conflict

Though the enmity between ethnic Georgians and ethnic Ossetians dates back to the 13th century when Ossetians were driven South from the Northern Caucasus Mountains to Georgian territory, it greatly intensified during the Soviet period.[2] During this period, South Ossetia was an autonomous administrative unit within the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR). As historian George B. Hewitt discusses, language policy was an important point of contention between the ethnic groups since Georgia pursued discriminatory policies against its ethnic minorities.[3] The Soviet Union’s early language policy granted a lot of freedom to ethnic groups as part of a “nativization” effort that sought to liberate and win over oppressed peoples. By the late 1930s, however, fears of emerging nationalism within the federation led to a change in policy to one of “Russification”. Georgia, however, was exempted from such policies until 1953 since its leader Joseph Stalin was a Georgian native. In 1936 Georgian was declared a state language and Georgianization became the policy of the day. In 1938 the state imposed the Georgian alphabet on the Ossetian language and prohibited minority language schooling, causing great tensions between the government and the ethnic minorities.[4] When the Russification policies reached the Georgian SSR, the Georgian Nationalist Movement proposed the 1988 Draft Language Law which aimed to oblige ethnic minorities to master the Georgian language.[5] These Georgian language policies, along with other discriminatory practices, thus created deep resentment among South Ossetians towards Georgians.


It is important to note that the small state of Georgia is home to other separatist ethnic minorities, including Abkhazians in the West and Adjarians in the South. Although the Abkhazian-Georgian conflict has paralleled the Georgian-South Ossetian conflict since 1991 when violent conflict first erupted during the Georgian independence movement, this paper will exclusively focus on the South Ossetian conflict. The violent experience of the 1990s was a culmination of hundreds of years of conflict. Political scientist Stefan Wolff writes that “South Ossetians wanted to preserve and remain within the Soviet Union. The Ossetians believed that their survival as ethno-cultural communities distinct from the Georgian majority would be in acute danger in an independent Georgian state.”[6] The relationship between Russia and South Ossetia was reinforced by the fact that ethnic Ossetians had their own autonomous republic within Russia, namely North Ossetia-Alana. With the support of Russia, the South Ossetian separatists managed to put up a strong resistance against the Georgians.[7]  In June 1992, shortly after the election of former Soviet Foreign Minister Edvard Shevardnadze as Georgian president, a ceasefire was signed in Sochi under Russian supervision.[8] The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) sent a mission composed of troops from Georgia, Russia, South Ossetia, and North Ossetia to facilitate negotiations toward a political agreement.[9] The OSCE mission successfully maintained peace until 2003 when President Mikhail Saakashvili rose to power through the popular Rose Revolution, and made the restoration of Georgian territorial integrity a major goal of the new government.[10]


The administration’s policy led to a violent flare up in 2004 when the government cracked down on a symbol of interethnic cooperation: the Ergneti Market.[11] Though the black market was a major point of contraband trade, the introduction of a harsh taxation system in the market, as a part of Saakashvili’s anti-contraband operation, significantly harmed Georgian relations with Ossetians. The market was one of the only sites of direct interaction between the two ethnic groups. Relations were made even worse by the fact that one of the targeted groups in this operation was comprised of local officials and businessmen who profited from Russian and Ossetian trade connections.[12] Violence erupted during and after the shutting down of the market. Even more detrimental to interethnic relations, in 2006 it became public that the smuggling operation still existed, but that it was now run but the ruling Georgian elite.[13] The closing of the Ergneti Market was labeled a “missed window of opportunity” for conflict resolution by academic Doris Vogl. She argued that “during the rigorously implemented state-building process of the early Saakashvili government, the informal Georgian-Ossetian relations immediately lost momentum.”[14] The events of 2004 polarized and radicalized both Georgians and Ossetians and intensified the clashes between the ethnic groups in the prelude of the war of 2008. Though Georgia offered South Ossetia federal status in 2004, the leadership rejected this possible resolution.[15]


Georgian policies in the early 2000s allowed Russia to offer more substantial and public support to the separatist Ossetians. Russia distributed passports to ethnic Ossetians and intensified political, economic and military ties with the separatist region. Arguably even more important, Russia observed growing relations between Georgia and Western powers like the United States. Georgia received 1.3 billion dollars of American financial aid and oversaw the construction of BP operated Baku–Supsa oil pipeline which runs through Azerbaijan and Georgia.[16] As Georgia began to pursue NATO membership, Russia was threatened by the possibility of having the Western coalition present in its own backyard. Svante E. Cornell and S. Frederick Starr comment that before the 2008 war, “Georgia was moving rapidly toward Euro-Atlantic integration, and was doing so at a time when an increasingly assertive Russian foreign policy was being shaped by sphere of influence-thinking.”[17] With fears of further NATO expansion and growing US presence in the Caucasus, Russian policy was driven by global security concerns, dynamics of European and global geopolitical power. Also significant is the fact that dominant Western powers such as the United States, the United Kingdom, and France supported and legitimized the secession of Kosovo from Serbia in February 2008. This allowed President Putin to cite the “Kosovo precedent” when signing a presidential decree on April 16th that established political, economic and social relations with both South Ossetia and Abkhazia.[18]


Rising tensions between the two sovereign nations resulted in a five day war in 2008. Controversy surrounds who actually initiated the war on August 7th 2008,[19] as reports by the European Union and the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center agree that while Georgia made the first move, Russia significantly increased the number of troops and armaments in Abkhazia, and later in South Ossetia in the prelude to the war.[20] After five days of violent conflict, Georgia and Russia agreed to sign an armistice and engaged in peace talks sponsored by the European Union, the United Nations and OSCE. Russian military troops remained in South Ossetia in order to prevent Georgia from recovering the territory.[21]


On August 25th, Russia recognized the sovereignty of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Western powers and institutions such as NATO, the European Union, and the United Nations strongly condemned this move as they believed it undermined the sovereignty of the Georgian state. In response, Georgia ceased all diplomatic relations with Russia. This made the peace process slow and ineffective as the co-sponsored EU-UN-OSCE talks in Geneva were the only mechanism for multilateral talks.[22] Since 2008, Russia has increased governmental, economic and social ties with the secessionist regions. The administrative border between South Ossetia and Georgia has also been pushed southwards and since the summer of 2015, South Ossetian-held territory includes a section of the Baku-Supsa pipeline. As Andrews Higgins puts it, the secessionist region is part of Russia’s “Frozen Zone”, which includes areas under Russian control that officially belong to neighboring states, such as Georgia’s Abkhazia, Moldova’s Transnistria, and Ukraine’s Crimea. Higgins also adds that these regions are “useful for things like preventing a NATO foothold or destabilizing the host country at opportune moments.”[23]

Issues with the Secession of South Ossetia


In his essay “The Cracked Foundations of the Right to Secede”, law professor and political scientist Donald Horowitz outlines a set of assumptions that are made about secessionist states which justify the right to secede. This right assumes that secession will produce a “homogenous successor” that will “respect minority rights,” and where “republican democracy is viable.”[24] It also assumes that secession will “result in a diminution of conflict.”[25] The case of South Ossetia can be analyzed as a natural secessionist experiment of history because the region has been a de-facto independent state for many years. The question then arises: have these assumptions materialized in the case of South Ossetia? In short, they have not.


As Horowitz points out, secession “merely proliferates the arenas in which the problem of intergroup political accommodation must be faced.”[26] In the case of Georgia, ample evidence shows that ethnic conflict continues to haunt both Georgia and the de-facto independent state of South Ossetia. There were many reports concerning violations of human rights from both sides during the 2008 war. For example, a Human Rights Watch report showed that there was intentional destruction of Georgian villages by Russian-South Ossetian troops.[27] The majority of ethnic Georgians who resided in South Ossetia fled during the August 2008 conflict, but an estimated 20,000 still live in the disputed territory.[28] The Ministry for Internally Displaced Persons from the Occupied Territories, Accommodation and Refugees of Georgia reported that there were 34,274 internally displaced persons (IDPs) from South Ossetia as of October 2014.[29] A UN survey shows that 56.9% of IDPs from South Ossetia are unable, but would like to return to their place of origin in cities like Tskhinvali, Znauri, Java, and Shida Kartli. This demonstrates how interethnic accommodations have failed to unfold with the creation of a separate state.


Additionally, with no access to the territory except in preparations for the Geneva Discussions, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and Georgian authorities have been unable to implement conventions regarding rights of refugees, stateless persons, and IDPs.[30] Russian troops regularly detain Georgian civilians for illegal crossings of the “administrative boundary line” (around 320 villagers were detained in 2015 alone).[31] In fact, the Freedom House Organization states that ethnic Georgians are barred from returning to the region unless they “renounce their Georgian citizenship and accept Russian passports.”[32]  Therefore, the freedom of movement of Georgian citizens is constantly threatened in South Ossetia. In July 2017, the South Ossetian authorities also shared plans “to abolish the Georgian language schooling in the region’s ethnic Georgian populated areas beginning from the 2017/2018 academic year.”[33] The language policy proposed by the South Ossetian government recalls the discriminatory policies Ossetians were subjected to at the hand of Georgians during the Soviet period. Regarding the meaningful political participation of ethnic minorities, the Freedom House states that ethnic Georgians have refused or been barred from participating in the electoral process.[34] Freedoms of expression and of organization are also threatened.[35] As Horowitz argues, the treatment of this new ethnic minority is highly discriminatory. Therefore, in the case of South Ossetia, secession does not create a homogenous successor nor does it guarantee the respect of minority rights. In the case of South Ossetia, secession does not seem feasible unless the authorities make a commitment to guarantee the rights of its ethnic minorities. But, as Horowitz warns, “guarantees of minority protection in secessionist regions are likely to be illusory.”[36]


While South Ossetia is considered a de-facto independent state, the viability of an independent republican democracy in South Ossetia is questionable when considering its high dependence on Russia.  Historians Andreas Gerrits and Max Bader argue that “the economic and intergovernmental linkages with Russia … directly undermine the autonomy of the region.”[37] With a dual executive system, South Ossetia maintains political institutions based on those of Russia. The 2011 presidential election demonstrates the grip of Russia on the region’s politics and shows how the South Ossetian political process is highly susceptible to Russian influence. When a candidate who criticized strong ties with Russia won the popular vote, the Supreme Court annulled the results. Elections were repeated in 2012 with four new candidates, all pro-Russia.[38] As a result of the bilateral agreements signed in 2009, 2010, and 2015 that established economic, governmental and military links between Russia and South Ossetia, South Ossetia developed a high level of dependence on Russia.[39] Russia is South Ossetia’s only relevant trade partner, the ruble is the official currency, and South Ossetia’s imports and investments are exclusively from Russia.[40] More significantly, 91% of South Ossetia’s government budget is made up from Russian financial aid.[41] These limitations arguably derive from a lack of international recognition and from the consequences of the 2008 war. However, as Russian economist Mikhail Delyagin states, “South Ossetia does not exist as an independent economic entity due to its small size and extremely low-level management,” as well as due to its reliance on Russia’s long-term military presence to protect its territory.[42] As a result of this significant dependence on Russian aid, South Ossetia does not have a sustainable future as an independent nation.


Another assumption that can be contested is that secession will lead to a diminution of violent conflict. This inevitable reality is highly flawed because devolution merely turns domestic conflicts into international ones. While a political divorce has not officially occurred, South Ossetia has been de-facto independent for at least 10 years. Though ethnic enmities linger, the recent history of the conflict shows how ethnic conflicts can mutate into primarily geopolitical ones when separatist movements thrive. University of Edinburgh Professor Emeritus John Erickson writes that the implications of Georgia’s Western push “are consequently dire for those [including high level Russian officials] who insist doggedly that the post-Soviet ‘space’ in its entirety, encompassing the former states of the Soviet Union, is and must remain a closed Russian geopolitical preserve.”[43] For Russia, the possibility of NATO encroachment on the South Caucasus precludes any significant decision concerning the separatist regions. As historian David J. Smith argues, German Chancellor Angela Merkle sealed the region’s fate when she said that the resolution of internal conflict was a prerequisite for NATO membership.[44] From that moment onwards, South Ossetia became a pawn in Moscow’s foreign policy strategy, described by Svante Cornell as a “revival of a classically modern, Realpolitik culture of security.”[45] The South Ossetian “secessionist” experience, along with that of other separatist states in Eastern Europe, illustrates how ethnic conflicts can be used to further geopolitical interests of powers like the Russian Federation in the post-Soviet space. The internationalization of the Georgian-South Ossetian conflict shows how secession does not necessarily lead to a diminution of violence. Therefore, the failure of South Ossetia to protect the minority rights of ethnic Georgians, its continued dependence on Russia, and likely mutation of ethnic conflicts into geopolitical ones suggests that secession is not a viable solution for this conflict.



There are no clear answers to Georgian-South Ossetian conflict. Though the director of the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies Cory Welt argues that “the reintegration of South Ossetia…poses no challenges to conventional understandings of democracy and human rights,” as time passes, the collective consciousness of both South Ossetians and Georgians acquires increasingly negative perceptions of the opposing ethnic group, making future interethnic cooperation difficult to achieve.[46] Additionally, the social linkage between South Ossetia and Russia continues to grow through the Russian domination of the media, the use of Russian as the lingua franca, and the promotion of educational exchange programs.[47] A symbolic link also comes from the large Ossetian diaspora in North Ossetia, an autonomous region within Russia. Thus, South Ossetia’s reintegration into Georgia becomes more unlikely by the day.


With most citizens having dual citizenship to South Ossetia and Russia, further integration of South Ossetia into Russia can be anticipated. While Russia has not stated that it will pursue the annexation of the territory, its aggressive support of South Ossetia has managed to destabilize the region, prevent Georgia from joining Western organizations such as NATO. Moreover, through its involvement in Georgia, Russia has reasserted its influence in the Caucasus region. If secession occurred and South Ossetia was recognized as independent state by the international community, Russia would be encouraged to engage in even more aggressive foreign policy in the post-Soviet sphere of influence, possibly resulting in a domino effect of secessionist movements and a higher occurrence of violent conflicts.


Georgia is a multiethnic country with two separatist movements (the experience of Abkhazia is very similar to that of South Ossetia), so the secession of one region would likely lead to that of the other. The disputed territories make up about one quarter of the Georgian territory, which means secession would severely destabilize the already weak country. The fear of a domino effect, not only in Georgia, but in other disputed territories that are currently under Russian control (i.e.: Crimea and Donbass, Ukraine; Transnitria, Moldova), is already a reality shaping international geopolitics. If the right to secede is accepted in relation to the South Ossetian dispute, the legal precedent set by Kosovo’s independence will be reaffirmed. With Russia’s “Frozen Zone” in mind, the emergence and legitimization of separatist movements of small and unsustainable regions can lead to the expansion of Russian sphere of influence in the post-Soviet territory and the further polarization of the present international political dynamics. 



Peace talks and conflict resolution efforts have proven ineffective for almost 25 years, since both sides are committed to achieving predetermined preferential outcomes.[48] Both sides have been haunted by the impatience of political leaders such as President Saakashvili and by a lack of trust from both sides due to the lack of interethnic communication. But, most of all, the sides have been haunted by a pro-separatist Russian mediator. Cory Welt writes that Russia’s “function as a ‘hegemonic balancer’ interposed between conflicting parties resulted in the establishment of a level playing field for negotiations, allowing Abkhazia and South Ossetia to consider themselves equals to Georgia, not subordinates.”[49] While Georgia attempted to reach an acceptable political solution, the support from a major power endowed separatist group with a decisive sense of confidence and security that hindered the resolution of the conflict. Meanwhile, Western states and institutions failed to devise a coherent response to Russian policies that threaten stability and Europe’s own interests in the region. The de-facto independence of South Ossetia encountered a continued threat to rights of ethnic minorities, a strong dependence on Russia, and the quick escalation of violence in 2008 due to the internationalization of the conflict. The region’s experience thus supports the argument that secession is not a viable solution for ethnic conflict in the Caucasus.



[1] Donald L. Horowitz, “The Cracked Foundations of the Right to Secede,” Journal of Democracy, 11.

[2] George Hewitt, Discordant Neighbours: A Reassessment of the Georgian-Abkhazian and Georgian-South Ossetian Conflicts, (Leiden: 2003), 22 -23.

[3] Hewitt, 41.

[4] Sonya Kleshik, "I Am My Language: Language Policy and Attitudes Toward Language in Georgia" (Master's thesis, Central European University, 2010), 11 - 12

[5] Hewitt, 57 – 58.

[6] Stefan Wolff, "Georgia: Abkhazia and South Ossetia," Encyclopedia Princetoniensis.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Marietta Konig, "The Georgian-South Ossetian Conflict ," OSCE Yearbook 2004 (Hamburg: 2004), 242.

[10] Ibid, 238.

[11] Doris Vogl, "Missed Windows of Opportunity in the Georgian-South Ossetian Conflict – The Political Agenda of the Post-Revolutionary Saakashvili Government (2004-2006)," Failed Prevention: The Case of Georgia (Vienna: 2010), 68 – 71.

[12] Vogl, 70.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid, 72.

[15] Wolff.

[16] Cory Welt, “Balancing the Balancer: Russia, the U.S., and Conflict Resolution in Georgia,” Global Dialogue 7, no. 3-4 (Summer/Autumn 2005), 24.

[17] Svante E. Cornell and S. Frederick Starr, eds., The Guns of August 2008: Russia's War in Georgia (Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2015), 4.

[18] Ibid, 7 – 8.

[19] "The Blame Game," The Economist, October 03, 2009.

[20] Ibid; Cornell, Popjanevski and Nilsson, “Russia’s War in Georgia”, 23 – 24.

[21] Luke Hardinng and Jenny Percival, “Russian troops to stay in Abkhazia and South Ossetia,” The Guardian, September 09 2008.

[22] Wolff, "Georgia”.

[23] Andrew Higgins, “In Russia’s ‘Frozen Zone,’ a Creeping Border With Georgia,” The New York Times, October 23 2016.

[24] Horowitz, “Cracked Foundations,” 8.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid, 9.

[27] Up In Flames: Humanitarian Law Violations and Civilian Victims in the Conflict over South Ossetia (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2009). 

[28] "World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples: Ossetians," Minority Rights Group International.

[29] UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Intentions Survey On Durable Solutions: Voices Of Internally Displaced Persons In Georgia, June 2015.

[30] UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Submission by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees For the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights' Compilation Report Universal Periodic Review: Georgia, January 2015.

[31] Vicenews, The Russians Are Coming: Georgia’s Creeping Occupation, VICE News, November 04, 2015,

[32] “Freedom In The World: South Ossetia," Freedom House, 2016.

[33] Georgian Schools to be Abolished in S. Ossetia," Civil.Ge, July 28, 2017.

[34] “Freedom In The World: South Ossetia”.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Horowitz, 6.

[37] Andre W. M. Gerrits and Max Bader, "Russian Patronage Over Abkhazia and South Ossetia: Implications for Conflict Resolution," East European Politics 32, no. 3 (July 19, 2016).

[38] “Freedom In The World: South Ossetia”.

[39] Gerrits and Bader, “Russian Patronage”.


[41] Paul Rimple, “Economics Not Impacting Russian Support for Georgian Separatists,”, February 13, 2015.

[42] Mikhail Delyagin, "A Testing Ground for Modernization and a Showcase of Success," Russia in Global Affairs, March 8, 2008.

[43] John Erickson, “Russia Will not be Trifled With: Geopolitical Facts and Fantasies,” in Geopolitics: Geography and Strategy,  ed. Colin S. Gray and Geoffrey Sloan (London: Frank Cass Publishers, 1999), p. 260.

[44] David J. Smith, "The Saakashvili Administration’s Reaction to Russian Policies Before the 2008 War," in The Guns of August 2008: Russia's War in Georgia (Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2015), 126.

[45] Cornell and Starr, The Guns of August 2008, 196.

[46] Cory Welt, “Balancing the Balancer: Russia, the U.S., and Conflict Resolution in Georgia,” Global Dialogue 7, no. 3-4 (2005), 12.

[47] Gerrits and Bader, “Russian Patronage”.

[48] Oksana Antonenko, "Failures of the Conflict Transformation and Root Causes of the August War," Failed Prevention: The Case of Georgia (Vienna: National Defence Academy and Bureau for Security Policy at the Austrian Ministry of Defence, 2010), 83.

[49] Welt, “Balancing the Balancer,” 2.


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