Ethnic, Cultural, and Political Differences
In 2008 tensions began increasing between Georgia and Russia when both countries began accusing the other of increasing military forces in the neighboring areas of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The Russian invasion of Georgia is a complicated issue that really began when the Soviet Union was dismantled. In 1991, eleven former Soviet republics ended their participation in the former Soviet Union effectively dismantling it. April 9, 1991, once the Soviet Union had collapsed, Georgia declared itself an independent nation (Weller & Nobbs, 2011). Shortly after becoming independent Georgia became embroiled in a civil war due to two areas Abkhazia and South Ossetia which desired to be independent nations. These areas were supported by Russia and were able to achieve independence with this support.
The area of South Ossetia remained in dispute with Russia supporting separatists in South Ossetia and Georgia not recognizing the state. The area of South Ossetia continued operating as an autonomous state with Russian support until 2008 when tensions in the region culminated into the Russian-Georgian War.
The assumption by many people is that tensions in the area were the result of Georgia's impending NATO Membership Action Plan. Under this plan, Georgia would receive NATO support which would significantly increase the military strength of the country (Weller & Nobbs, 2011). However, this assumption may only be one part of a larger historical problem which led to the Russian-Georgian War. The war was really caused by ethnic, cultural, and political ideological differences which date back to antiquity.
The roots of the Russian-Georgian War can be traced back as far as the 17th century when Georgia and Ossetia existed as separate countries but in the northern region of Georgia, there was a large population of Ossetians. The German explorer Johann Anton Güldenstädt made note of this in 1772 when he described the area of Kartli (which would become South Ossetia) as having a large population of Ossetians (Duiker & Spielvogel, 2013). Going back to this time, Georgians and Ossetians had distinctive ethnic differences. The people of Ossetia are mostly Iranian by descent speaking Ossetic which is an Iranian language (Duiker & Spielvogel, 2013). The Ossetians are also largely Eastern Orthodox Christian.
In contrast to the Ossetians, Georgians speak Georgian which is a language wholly different than Ossetic. As well, Georgians in general, are part of the Georgian Orthodox Church which is inherently different than the Eastern Orthodox Christian church (Duiker & Spielvogel, 2013). There is an obvious ethnic difference between Georgians due to language and religious beliefs.
Culturally, Georgia and Ossetia have always been different. Georgian’s have a long history of literature, art, philosophy, and architecture. Similarly, Ossetia had a distinctive culture. As farmers who originally lived in Ossetia and today in South Ossetia. Under the Soviet Union Ossetia would become a Soviet state. South Ossetia would operate as an autonomous oblast within the Soviet Union but over time this would alter the culture of South Ossetia to be more like Russia (Weller & Nobbs, 2011). Today, South Ossetia culture is largely Russian in nature.
One of the major impacts of South Ossetia being under Soviet control was the alteration of political ideology. Ossetia is a semi republic state much like Russia. Ossetia since the Soviet Union has sided with the Russians on many different political stances and receives military and financial support from Russia. In contrast, Georgia is a unitary semi-republic (Weller & Nobbs, 2011). Georgia has always considered itself an independent nation and resisted occupation by Russia during the Soviet rule (Weller & Nobbs, 2011). The area known as North Ossetia is today a subject of the Russian state.
At the heart of these differences is a situation in which there are two diametrically opposing groups vying for territorial control. While the answer would seem obvious that Georgia should release South Ossetia this solution is mired in other issues. For instance, many Georgians were living in South Ossetia and the original Ossetian people were a small minority. The population of Ossetia as of 2013 was about 70,000 many of whom were Georgian (BBC, 2013). Although the Russian invasion of Georgia was most likely a preemptive measure to stop NATO membership and for Russia to maintain its base of power, this action was amplified by the ethnic, cultural, and ideological differences between Ossetians and Georgians. The Russian invasion provided the catalyst for deep-rooted tensions and hatred to explode.
The Russian reporter, Pavel Felgenhauer, confirms that the Russian invasion was a preemptive strike,
Felgenhauer relates the timeline and events leading up to this invasion.
Although the invasion of Georgia was a military action based on what Russia believes to be a NATO threat, it is difficult to believe that this was the only motivation. If it were the only motivation then Russia could have sought peaceful solutions with NATO or directly with Georgia. Instead, military action was taken and one of the first things which occurred in South Ossetia was ethnic cleansing Georgians. Russian military in conjunction with South Ossetian authorities attacked and killed Georgian civilians. This is not the first time that ethnic cleansing has been used in this region.
Russia, even when under Soviet Rule, maintained military power throughout this region. Russia has continued to exert control over this area without the use of ethnic cleansing and other human rights violations. While the threat of NATO would seem to be a legitimate excuse for the invasion of Georgia, it is far more likely that ethnic, cultural, and ideological differences were the primary driver for the invasion.
The area known as North Ossetia is today a subject of the Russian state. South Ossetia is considered an autonomous government under the Provisional Administrative Entity of South Ossetia. Although it is considered to be autonomous it is largely considered by the international community to be a Russian occupied territory. The successful annexation of South Ossetia will mean that Georgia will be directly in harm’s way but more importantly, the annexation of Georgia will likely be the next target for Russia.
The real issue is not whether Russia is trying to reclaim power but if long standing differences between Russian’s/Ossetians and Georgians are the real cause of dispute. Russia by comparison to countries such as Georgia is a monolith of military power. It may not just be an isolated instance of ethnic and cultural differences pertaining to Georgia. CNN points to a larger scope of ideological differences in its assessment of Russian actions:
Despite the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia and its allied nations such as South Ossetia seem to maintain many anti-democratic ideals. The Russian invasion of Georgia may be a preview of future actions. Although Russia states that it desires peace it seems to still hold a great deal of vehemence to states that do not share its beliefs.
BBC. (2013, May 30). South Ossetia profile. Retrieved from BBC: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-18269214
CNN. (2013, February 21). How Russia prepared and executed ethnic cleansing of Georgians. Retrieved from CNN: http://ireport.cnn.com/docs/DOC-930662
Duiker, W. J., & Spielvogel, J. J. (2013). The Essential World History Vol I: To 1800 (Vol. 1). Boston, MA: Cengage.
Felgenhauer, P. (2008, August 18). Pavel Felgenhauer on Russia’s Preemptive War Planning. Retrieved from Robert Amsterdam: http://robertamsterdam.com/2008/08/pavel_felgenhauer_on_russias_preemptive_war_planning/
Smolar, P. (2013, October 8). Georgia wary of Russian encroachment Tbilisi is eager to normalize relations but fears its neighbor’s motives in controlling South Ossetia. Retrieved from The Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/oct/08/georgia-russia-border-conflict-south-ossetia
Weller, M., & Nobbs, K. (2011). Asymmetric Autonomy and the Settlement of Ethnic Conflicts. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Map By Kami888 — Own work by uploader, based on Andrei nacu&#039;s 2008 South Ossetia map derived from Wikipedia and the CIA regional map of 1994., Public Domain
Triola Vincent. Wed, Sep 01, 2021. Russian Invasion of Georgia Retrieved from https://vincenttriola.com/blogs/ten-years-of-academic-writing/russian-invasion-of-georgia