In an interview on June 29, the South Ossetian ‘foreign minister’, Dmitri Medoev, said the region’s Russian-backed authorities are intent on “returning” the Ossetian-populated areas of Georgia’s mountainous Kazbegi municipality.
Medoev claimed some “historically eastern Ossetian lands” – Truso gorge, Kobi plateau and Ghuda gorge, – all in Kazbegi, inside the Tbilisi-administered territory, were “arbitrarily” left outside their control by the Soviets.
“This is a very painful matter for entire Ossetia… Villages that were once crowded lie in ruins and the Ossetian population was completely pushed out of these areas… Sooner or later these lands will be returned to Ossetia and there will be Ossetians living there,” he stressed.
The interview circulated rapidly in the rest of Georgia, raising fears that additional Tbilisi-controlled territory might fall under Russian sway. The government has decried Medoev’s statements as an attempt to “threaten and blackmail” the Georgian society.
To make sense of Tskhinvali’s territorial claims, we offer you a review of its factual background.
Was Truso gorge ever part of the South Ossetian autonomy? No.
When did the claims first emerge? After 2008; the term “Eastern Ossetia” did not appear till 2016.
What is the nature of Tskhinvali’s claims? Ethnic. Ossetians lived in Kazbegi/Kobi community.
Were they driven out by Georgians? It’s complicated: most people left the area during the Ingush deportation in 1940s. Afterwards, economic migration forced both Georgians and Ossetians to move to North Ossetia, in Russia. But the conflict around South Ossetia did lead to dramatic drop of ethnic Ossetian population – although from a very low number.
Throughout the entire Soviet period, the territory of contemporary Tskhinvali Region/South Ossetia existed within the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic, under the status of the South Ossetian Autonomous Oblast, while the territory of Kazbegi district – north-east from the region – was outside the autonomy, first within the neighboring Dusheti Uyezd, and later – as district of “republican subordination,” that is, directly accountable to Tbilisi.
The Supreme Council of Georgia abolished the South Ossetian Autonomous Oblast in 1990, merging its constituent districts with neighboring regions of Georgia. However, only part of the autonomy’s former territory (roughly 30%), mostly ethnic Georgian villages, remained under the jurisdiction of central government. The rest was either controlled by Tskhinvali authorities, or was left in no-man’s-land.
Tbilisi lost control of the remaining pockets of territory in the Russo-Georgian War of 2008. After the armed conflict, and following the recognition of South Ossetia by Moscow, the Russian troops deployed in the region started sealing off South Ossetia, roughly following the region’s Soviet-time boundaries.
Tskhinvali authorities met the process enthusiastically, seeing this as an opportunity to reunite what they term “the Georgian-occupied” areas – particularly Akhalgori district in the eastern part.
But over time, their appetite for territorial expansion has grown beyond the region’s boundaries.
Encouraged by Georgia’s post-war vulnerability and pinning hopes on the Russian army, South Ossetian leaders started laying territorial claims inside the Tbilisi-administered territory. Kazbegi municipality – on the Russian-Georgian border – was not an unexpected target, given that the area was home to a sizable ethnic Ossetian minority during the Soviet Union.
History: The making of ‘Eastern Ossetia’ claim
Although the idea of reuniting Ossetian-populated lands under the banner of the Russian Federation has long been entertained by local elites, it was not until after the 2008 war that Tskhinvali authorities started raising their demands in political fora.
Eduard Kokoity, Tskhinvali’s war-time leader, was first to make the territorial claims.
“We have very serious territorial issues, which will need to be raised… It concerns the Truso gorge, which today is part of the Georgian administrative district of Mtskheta-Mtianeti – this is a native Ossetian land, which by unclear reasons in the Soviet period was transferred under the administrative governance of the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic. Today, it is necessary to raise the issue of returning these lands to Ossetia,” Kokoity said in an interview in July 2009.
The issue reemerged in March 2016, when Tskhinvali participants at the Geneva International Discussions, the diplomatic venue for dealing with the consequences of the 2008 war, accused the Georgian government of not letting ethnic Ossetian natives of Kazbegi and their descendants back to their places of origin – “to Eastern Ossetia.”
This marked the first time the term “Eastern Ossetia” appeared in Tskhinvali’s political vernacular. Back then, however, “Eastern Ossetia” was understood within the confines of Truso gorge and Kobi plateau, but over time the geography has expanded and covered the Ghuda gorge as well, an area on the Southern slopes of the Caucasus Mountain, also in Kazbegi municipality.
Tskhinvali has been consistently raising the issue since, reiterating its historical and ethno-cultural claims over the area, and accusing the Georgian authorities of ill-treating the Ossetians of Kazbegi.
“It is a matter of fact that, historically, Truso gorge, Ghuda gorge and Kobi plateau make up the eastern part of the ethnic territory of Ossetia… These territories are an integral part of common Ossetian historical and ethno-cultural space, which have always been considered as the territory of Ossetia,” Tskhinvali MFA wrote in August 2017.
“The problem of Truso Ossetians is [very] acute; the Georgian government does not allow them to [enter] their native villages, to their historical homeland. No one has forgotten that not long ago Truso gorge was part of Ossetia, not Georgia,” the Tskhinvali leader, Anatoly Bibilov, told reporters in August 2018.
Geography: what land exactly does Tskhinvali claim?
Kazbegi municipality is located on both sides of the Caucasus Mountain range, on the Russian-Georgian border, and is traversed by the Georgian Military Road, the only “official” road linking the two countries (the remaining two roads run through Abkhazia and South Ossetia).
Kazbegi is flanked by Georgia’s Dusheti municipality to the west and to the south. It borders Russia to the north, and Java and Akhalgori districts of Tskhinvali Region/South Ossetia to the west and south-west, respectively.
The municipality is divided into six administrative units. The area known as Truso gorge and Kobi Plateau forms the Kobi Community, towards the municipality’s west. It has eighteen villages (15 of them – uninhabited), and had a population of 29 persons in 2014.
Ghuda gorge, located on the Southern slopes of the Caucasus Mountain range, in the headwaters of Tetri Aragvi river, is part of the Gudauri Community, which consists of six villages (four of them uninhabited), including the Ski resort of Gudauri. In 2014, it had a population of 89 persons.
Numbers: where did the Ossetians go?
Kobi and Gudauri communities were home to large Ossetian populations in the first half of the 20th century, but most of them left the district at various times in the second half of the century, primarily for North Ossetia, a republic in the North Caucasus within the Russian Federation.
The earliest Soviet census – that of 1926 – shows that the territory of contemporary Kazbegi municipality was home to 5,519 ethnic Georgians and 3,190 ethnic Ossetians, with almost all of the district’s Ossetian population concentrated in Kobi and Ghuda communities.
The subsequent Soviet census – that of 1939 – registered a total of 10,183 residents in Kazbegi district, with 6,098 (59.9%) ethnic Georgians and 3,529 ethnic Ossetians (34.7%).
In the next two decades, the number of ethnic Ossetians living in Kazbegi dropped significantly, apparently due to their mass resettlement in Prigorodny district in 1944, following the deportation of Ingush people. As a result, in the 1959 census, out of 7,976 Kazbegi residents, 5,845 were ethnic Georgian, and 2,007 were ethnic Ossetian.
Table I: Population of Kazbegi by two major ethnicities
Data sources are hyperlinked to year headers.
The numbers continued plummeting in subsequent decades, but this time, the migration was voluntary and primarily economic – given the district’s proximity to Vladikavkaz, the regional capital of North Ossetia and the nearest urban area, both Ossetians and Georgians preferred to move there, rather than to other parts of Georgia (in 2010, North Ossetia had approximately 10 thousand ethnic Georgian residents, mostly Kazbegi natives).
As a result, by 1989, the number of Ossetians living in Kazbegi was reduced to 445 persons. The figure continued falling in the next decade, shrinking to 89 in 2002. While migratory processes were again chiefly economic, Georgian-Ossetian tensions of early 1990s have clearly played an important role as well – the number of Ossetians experienced the biggest decline from 1989 to 2002 – a decrease of 80%.
Positions: Tbilisi vigilant, Moscow tight-lipped
Tbilisi has been keeping a watchful eye on the developments, interpreting Tskhinvali’s territorial ambitions – both domestically and internationally – as Russian-orchestrated attempts to pressure the country.
“These are mere theoretical discussions and there won’t be any practical consequences; they understand this very well, and presumably, are using it to pressure the Georgian side psychologically,” the MFA said in August 2009, shortly after Tskhinvali’s initial Truso-related claims.
“The fact that these statements are occasionally voiced from the occupied territories, is an outright and deliberate provocation aimed at threatening and blackmailing the society – the usual working method of the occupation regime,” Reconciliation Minister Ketevan Tsikhelashvili said on January 31, 2019, in response to Medoev’s interview.
Words have followed actions on the ground. Fearing the new Russian incursions, Georgia has considerably tightened security measures in Truso gorge in the aftermath of the 2008 war, including through increasing police presence in the area, as well as through prohibiting unauthorized access into the valley.
Tbilisi has apparently also stiffened controls at the Kazbegi-Larsi border crossing point with Russia; numerous accounts suggest that starting from 2010, when President Mikheil Saakashvili lifted visa restrictions for residents of North Caucasus, ethnic Ossetian natives of Kazbegi Municipality have been subject to more scrupulous security profiling at the border, and at times – have been denied entry to Georgia.
The Russian Federation, on its part, has been tight-lipped over the issue, neither endorsing nor denouncing the territorial ambitions of Tskhinvali. So have the authorities of North Ossetia, who have been far less invested in the issue than their southern kinsman.
Moscow intervened two times on the matter – in January 2012 and in September 2017. On both occasions, Georgia was accused of carrying out “restrictive measures” against “Russian citizens of Ossetian descent – those hailing from Kazbegi district” that “prevents them from visiting their homes.” Neither of these statements, however, contained any references to Tskhinvali’s territorial claims over the area.