Russia invaded Georgia partly to help maintain the loyalty of its own southern republicsby Daniel J Gerstle / August 31, 2008 / Leave a comment
Published in August 2008 issue of Prospect Magazine
Click here to discuss this article at First Drafts, Prospect’s blog
According to Russia, up to 2,000 people have died in the Russo-Georgia conflict and 30,000 have been displaced in South Ossetia. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that the crisis may have created as many as 100,000 refugees across Georgia.
The conflict has its roots not only in South Ossetia, where the fighting began last week, but also over the Caucasus mountain border in the southern Russian republics, primarily North Ossetia. According to Russian news agencies, Russia’s federal and interior forces—including those of the southern republics North Ossetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachai-Cherkessia, Ingushetia and Chechnya—participated in a joint military exercise along the Russo-Georgia border in mid-July. Then, on 5th August, three days before the Russian invasion of Georgia began, the leaders of North Ossetia, Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachai-Cherkessia released a joint statement describing their plan for military and humanitarian action should Georgia advance on South Ossetia.
What explains the bond of loyalty between the Ossetians and Russia? As an American serving as an aid worker in North Ossetia, Ingushetia and Chechnya in 2006, I had a unique opportunity to find out who the Ossetians are. I also learned their pivotal role in Russian national security.
The Ossetians are a Persiatic, largely Christian people who live on both sides of the Russo-Georgian border. They call themselves “Iron Adem” and their nation “Alania.” Villagers guard memorials of their past civilisation: castle towers, ruined stone villages and open-air tombs called “Houses of the Dead.” Lowland Ossetians celebrate their nationhood in theatres, churches and forested culture parks, and are known for their prowess at football and delicious fet…