23 April 2013

Chechnya: A Little Background Series, Part 2

Due to the events in Boston, Chechnya is the hot topic.  There is a lot of solid, fair information out there, but there's also really prejudiced, xenophobic information as well.  This post should hopefully condense the history of the neighboring north Caucus neighbors as well as Chechnya and give context since the name and history of this region will be tossed about for the next couple of weeks, at least.  Let me clearly state this now: it is unclear whether the conflict in Chechnya has any relevance to the Boston bombing and I am not endorsing a direct link between the two.  This is merely to give more information about a misunderstood, seldom-taught corner of the world and it's best to have more straight information out when it's being talked about.  Let us proceed.

Chechnya is right on the border of Georgia.  This borderland of the former Soviet Union/USSR has been embroiled in conflict for the past while.  Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Chechnya all occupy the Caucus between the Caspian and Black Seas.  The proximity of all these regions, their wars, and continued disputes is important when considering the state of Chechnya.  Since there is a lot going on, I've broken it down by the conflicted region.  There is a lot going on here, so I've broken it down into 3 post, culminating in Chechnya. This post is discussing South Ossetia.  Abkhazia's post is here.


South Ossetia

via Wiki

South Ossetia has less of a troubled history than Abkhazia.  It is believed that they are descended from Sarmatians, called Alans.  They existed there from approximately 5th century BC and during the Middle Ages they were influenced by the Byzantine Empire and Georgia, causing them to turn Christian, though they worshiped an odd assortment of pagan and Christian deities.  In the 8th century, the Alan kingdom (referred to as Alania) came into existence by consolidating areas in the northern Caucus. Alania was a strong ally with the Kingdom of Abkhazia, which was not to the Byzantine Empire's benefit.  A messenger from Constantinople was sent to bribe the Alanian king to sever this tie because of Abkhazia's alliance with an enemy.  He succeeded and Abkhazia locked up him up on his return home, though he managed to escape.  Right after this, an Arabian tribe attacked Alania; luckily, the Khazars came to their aid  and after beating the opponent back, erecting some strongholds.  8 years later, the Arabs decimated the Alanian kingdom.  During the 9th century, they were allied with the Khazars in an effort to beat back people from the southern steppes and were followers of Judaism.  However, a ruler converted to Christianity and the kingdom fell under Byzantine influence, which led to them being Christian and fight the Khazars.  They were defeated and their ruler was captured.  However, mid-10th century, they threw out Byzantines, turned their back on Christianity, and allied with the Khazars under the kingdom fell in the 960s.  They then renewed their Byzantine alliance because they needed protection from the people of the northern steppes.  Their alliance led to some ransacking of other places, collaboration with Christian conversions, and creating an alliance with the Georgians in the 11th century.  By the 13th century, the Ossetians were driven into what is now known as South Ossetia when the Mongols invaded the northern Caucus.  The wars of Timur in the 14th century dealt the final blow to Alania, and the people split into three groups.  One of them became known as Jassic (Jászik) and settled in Hungary.  Another group, the Digor, came under Muslim influence in the 16th century due to neighboring tribes, but Orthodox Christianity gained a strong presence when northern Ossetia came under Russia rule in 1774, which South Ossetia following in 1801 (along with Georgia).

As we all know the Russian empire was taken over by Bolsheviks and created the Soviet Union.  The Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic (TDFR) was formed in 1918 and included Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan.  At this time, Ossetia wanted to become autonomous and gain control of the Caucus, but their political mechanisms broke down and Bolsheviks dominated the councils.  Bolsheviks called for the unification of Ossetia and absorption into the Union.  Ossetian peasants refused to pay taxes to the TDFR and sided with Russia in a 2 year struggle against Georgia/TDFR.  Complicated story short, the situation was causing tension between Russia and Georgia, which was not what Lenin wanted, so the Bolsheviks backed out on the rebels and the Ossetians were crushed by the Georgian military.  However, many Ossetians joined in the Russian military campaign to crush Georgia in 1921, one year after the fighting ended.  As they were absorbed into the Union, Ossetians were rewarded with an South Ossetian Autonomous Oblast, which included some Georgian strongholds, within the Georgian SSR.  North Ossetia became part of the SFSR.  The Ossetians and Georgians remained peaceful during the Soviet Union, with intermarrying and general interactions, as well as freedom to teach and speak Ossetian, which contrasted to mounting tensions in Abkhazia.

As the Soviet Union broke down, Zviad Gamsakhurdia created an independent Georgia and helped keep an uneasy peace between Abkhazia and Georgia.  His political actions came at the expense of minorities, namely the South Ossetians, who had nationalist aspirations.  Gamsakhurdia organized a Georgian protest in South Ossetia's capital, which was blocked by the civilians, and they clashed violently.  South Ossetians began arming themselves.  When Gamsakhurdia won the 1990 election, the government revoked the independent status of the region and ethnic violence became considerably worse.  Paramilities looted and beat the other side, causing Georgia to declare a state of emergency and prepare for conflict.  North Ossetians and other northern Caucasians joined together in the fight that went from 1991-1992 (First South Ossetian War); it was characterized as anarchic and confused.  The war ended in a complicated stalement, but many South Ossetians had fled into North Ossetia.  This is where the history of Chechnya starts to come in.  The flood of South Ossetians into the northern side of the mountains heightened ethnic tensions between Ossetians and Ingush (from the Chechen-Ingush ASR).  Prigorodny was the area of dispute--it was part of the Ingush Autonomous Oblast in 1924, but twenty years later was reassigned to North Ossetia.  As the Ingush returned to the Chechen-Ingush ASR, they sought to reclaim traditional lands, i.e. Prigorodny.  Ossetians and Ingush began a violent conflict, known as the East Prigorodny/Ossetian-Ingush Conflict, in 1992.  Ingush were forced from their homes, homes which were later filled by the South Ossetian refugees since the Ossetian government blocked the return of the Ingush.

In 2003, Sakaashvili was elected president of Georgia and promised to bring autonomous regions back into the Georgian fold.  He tried to coax the region into joining Georgia again by promising broad autonomy and humanitarian aid, but shut down a major market in 2004.  South Ossetians responded by blockading the road between Georgia and Russia.  Georgia then started bypassing that area and developing new roads, while trying to subdue the oppositional forces (they were captured) and intercepting a Russian convoy (much to Moscow's chagrin).  Sakaashvili refused to attend peace talks and artillery fire was exchanged.  Moscow's displeasure led to passing a resolution supporting South Ossetia and Abkhazia pledged its help should Georgia fight.  Soon, a ceasfire agreement was reached and signed by South Ossetian president Eduard Kokoity and the Georgian PM, but was immediately violated on August 18th with bloody clashes.  Georgia gained the upper hand, but gave a "last chance for peace" and withdrew non-peacekeeping forces.  Two years later, the South Ossetians attempted to shoot down the helicopter of the Georgian Defense Minister, though they only damaged it, saying it crossed into their airspace and was a clear provocation.  One month later was when the South Ossetians reported a skirmish in a northern gorge of Georgia, finding them to be Chechens with Russian peacekeeping uniforms and heavy artillery.  They concluded this was an attempt at sabotage.  (It's important to note that Russia accused Georgia of harboring Chechen rebels and South Ossetians accused Georgia of hiring Chechen mercenaries.)  Elections happened one month after that, between Kokoity and unofficially-backed-by-Tbilisi Dmitry Sanakoyev of the opposition.  Russia and South Ossetia claimed it was a move to install a puppet government.  Sanakoyev was appointed to the head of the South Ossetian administrative body by Tbilisi, who won foreign backing for his new initiatives.  South Ossetia was invited to join a discussion of its new status in the Georgian state, but Kokoity refused to participate.  One year later, a missile landed in Georgia, purportedly sent by Russia, though this was denied by Moscow.

2008: The Russia-Georgia War

This war is also known as the Five-Day War2008 South Ossetia Conflict, or August War.  Russia joined sides with both South Ossetia and Abkhazia, with Georgia opposing them.  Since these were two simultaneous conflicts, they are separated for clarity.  See the Abkhazian side of the conflict here.

South Ossetia


June 14th, 2008: gunfire is exchanged outside of South Ossetia's capital, Tshkhinvali.  Neither side claims the first shot, with Georgia claiming Ossetian aggression in surrounding Georgian villages and Ossetia claiming Georgian aggression on the capital from surrounding Georgian villages.  In July, the fighting picked up again with a bombing on an Ossetian, an attack on Sanakoyev's convoy.  Then Tshinkvali was shelled, Ossetia retaliated with gunfire, Georgia said Ossetians were prevented from planting bombs in connecting roads, and then Russia  military jets invaded Georgian air space.  Georgia was enraged as Russia claimed they did so to prevent an attack on Ossetia.  Condoleeza Rice stepped onto the scene with support for Georgia's bid for NATO, saying it would help the resolution of both Abkhazia and South Ossetia; Russia disagreed.

 South Ossetia claimed that it could handle Georgia on its own, but that Russia's peacekeeping forces to be increased.  Speculation floated around that Russia was planning to take Kodori Gorge, with the assistance of Abkhazia's Sergey Bagapsh.  However, on July 14th, Georgia began increasing its military presence, particularly for airspace and the Black Sea coast.  Suspiciously, Russian military exercises revved up for peacekeeping in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, leading Georgia to claim it was a sign of aggression.  The timing was especially suspicious because the two regions began talking to Belarus and Russia about joining their union, requiring recognized independence.  The skirmishes picked up before the US sponsored trans-Caucus exercises in Georgia (which began July 27), but the full military assault broke out on August 7th.

August 7th: firing broke out between the two sides, leading to the wounding of Georgian peacekeepers in Avnevi.  Soon Georgia moved military weapons and tanks towards the border and pulled out peacekeeping troops.  The Georgian Minister of Reintegration, Yakobashvili, was in Tskhinvali for negotiations that South Ossetia decided to boycott one day before, and Georgia pulled out from months earlier, demanding the presence of the EU, OSCE, and the administrative body of South Ossetia that Georgia recognized.  Yakobashvili noticed that the capital was emptied and ran into the General Kulakhmetov of the peacekeeping forces, who informed him that Russia could not stop Ossetia from attacking, so it would be wise for Georgia to declare a ceasefire.  Not long after, Sakaashvili ordered a ceasfire, which held for about 3 hours before resuming because Georgian forces pushed forward during that time.  Shelling in the area near Avnevi began and Sakaashvili claimed it was to prevent a Russian attack, though no intelligence supports this claim.  This was the point at which skirmishes became a war.  The Russian attacks were largely focused on the large-scale assaults in cities, while local militia and volunteers fought in surrounding villages.  All sides were accused of using "indiscriminate" weapons, meaning the weapons hit civilian, and not solely military, targets, as well as indiscriminate violence.  Russia bombed Tbilisi on August 8th as Tskhinvali was shelled by Georgia.  Gori, a city near the border with South Ossetia, was heavily attacked by the Russians after the Georgian retreat from a three-day offense in Tskhinvali.  Gori was occupied by the Russians on August 13th and remained occupied until August 22nd. 

A peace agreement was reached between Medvedev and Sakaashvili under the supervision of Sarkozy, who was the President-in-Office of the European Union, on the 12th of August and was signed by Kokoity and Bagapsh in the 14th.  It must be noted that this did not end the violence and skirmishes did happen past the date of agreement.  There is still dispute over Russia's presence and their political involvement in the region.