US, French and other western political leaders who have expressed sympathy or support for Georgia in its recent conflict with Russia may not be aware of certain linguistic factors which complicate the dispute. Language is often a root of strife in the Caucasus – an area home to 40-50 indigenous tongues.
No other region of comparable size has such a dense collection of ethnic groups, apart from Papua New Guinea and certain parts of the Amazon where jungles are so thick that small but nearby tribes rarely encounter one another. In the Caucasus, big mountains serve the same purpose, offering small ethnicities a natural refuge against more powerful or aggressive ones.
Painstaking research has enabled scholars to divide the Caucasian languages into three broad categories, though hardly any of them are mutually intelligible. Moreover, they seem to be unrelated to any other languages on earth, though a few linguists, in some desperation, have suggested that Georgian has some links with Basque. While the Basque intelligentsia have shown little enthusiasm to embrace this hypothesis, there is even less liking for the Georgian tongue among the immediate neighbours, particularly South Ossetia. Although Georgians and South Ossetians have co-existed in the valley around Tskhinvali for many centuries, the language divide between the two groups is a source of perpetual friction. Both sides claim to have arrived there first. South Ossetians regard it as their country and the home of the Ossetian language, which is related to Farsi (Iranian). The Georgians who live in South Ossetia speak of course Georgian, but until the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1990 both sides had a common lingua franca in Russian.
After 1990 Georgians stopped using Russian and expected the South Ossetians to learn Georgian for the purpose of communication. Here comes the rub: Georgian is one of the most difficult tongues to learn in the world, with a fearsome array of diabolically irregular verbs, ridiculous consonant clusters such as “gvprtskvni,” an archaic base-20 counting system and an alphabet differing from any other on earth. South Ossetians hate learning Georgian just as English schoolchildren would revolt against Chinese. How they envied North Ossetians, who could go on being comfortable in Russian with the Russians who live among them!
Political commentators may not realise to what extent the visceral tug of one’s mother tongue will affect the choice of regional political allegiance. While many ex-Soviet satellite states are relieved to be free of the Russian Bear, South Ossetians, on the other hand, may instinctively wish to assert their national identity and culture through their Indo-European language rather than mingle with surrounding tongues such as Svan, Ubykh, Udi, Tsova-Tush, Bzyb and, yes, Georgian.
In the North Caucasia Ossetians are the only Iranian speaking nation, but anthropologically, by culture and according to the ethno-psychological signs, they are typical Caucasians. This ethnic ,,bifacial” nature is caused therewith that in their ethnogeny Iranian speaking nomads of the Eurasia steppes took part, as well as Caucasian autochthonic population. Ossetians’ direct Iranian speaking ancestors – Ass and Allans appeared in the steppes of the North Caucasia in 1st century A.D. and went into history as incomparable horsemen warriors, who were horrendous to all Near East in the 1st-4th centuries. From time to time their troops robbed Parthia, Armenia, Eastern provinces of Rome, even Egypt.
But it is notable that they never robbed the kingdom of Kartli (Iberia). The point is that to get from the North Caucasia to the Near East was possible only through Dariali pass and Dariali pass was controlled by Georgians. So Allans, without making agreement with the authorities of Kartli kingdom could not arrange neither their robbery incursions, nor could manage the regular trading-economic contacts with the Anterior Asia, by which both sides were equally interested.
Ties between Georgia and Allans has not ceased hereafter, when in the 9th-10th centuries, in the west part of the North Caucasia, on the steppes Allans established a vast kingdom, which Byzantines mentioned as Allania and Georgians as Ovseti.
Christianity in Ovseti-Allania was spread by the king of Abkhazs Giorgi II, who ruled in the West Georgia (in Abkhazia) in 922-957. That’s why almost all terms associated with Christianity in Ossetian language is borrowed from Georgian (dzuar – jvari, morkho-markhva, Tarangelos-Mtavarangelozi, Mikalgabirta-Mikelgabrieli, Giorguba-Giorgoba, etc.).
The most vivid reflection of the close relations between Allania-Ovseti and Georgia were ruling line weddings, especially in the 11th-12th centuries: Georgian kings Giorgi I (1014-1027), Bagrat IV (1027-1072), Giorgi III (1156-1184) took in marriage Ovsetian princeses, Queen Tamar’s (1184-1210) husband Davit Soslan was the heir of the throne of Ovsetian kingdom.
The state of Allania-Ovseti was destroyed first by Mongols in the 13th century and then, at the end of the 14th century smashed by Tamerlan. The main multitude of Allan-Ossetians was constrained to seek shelter in the mountainous gorges of the central Caucasus, while the plain of the ancient Allania at that time was occupied by reinforced Kabardinians.
Right in the mountainous part of the central Caucasus, as a result of confluence-mixing of Allan-Ossetians with the aboriginal Caucasian mountaineers, the present day Ossetian ethnos was formed in the 15th-17th centuries, which encloses two sub-ethnoses: Irs (Iron) and Digors. Digors substitute the west part of the Ossetians’ resettlement territory, where in the 17th-18th centuries, Islam was spread under the influence of Kabardinian seigniors, while Irs, whose name today became entirely the self-term of Ossetians (Iron) and Ossetia (Iriston), are the sole nation in North Caucasus, who represent the confessors of Christianity.
In the 17th century Iron-Ossetians started peaceful migration in the alpine gorges of the northern part of the central Georgia. This action was sanctioned by the central authorities of Georgia, as well as by Georgian feudals, concerned by the increasing of serf-peasants. Around the end of the 18th century, in the springs of the rivers Tergi, Ksani, Liakhvi, Aragvi, Jejora and Kvirila, the number of Ossetian new settlers made 4000 households. Ossetians movement into Georgia through the paved way was continued in the 19th-20th centuries too, when Georgia was already conquered by Russians and Ossetian settlements in internal territories of Georgia, in Trialeti, Borjomi-Bakuriani and Kakheti emerged as well. In 1989 the population of Ossetians in Georgia reached 164000 and among ethnic minorities living in Georgia, Ossetians, after Azerbaijanians, Russians and Armenians took the fourth place.
The process of Ossetians lodging in Georgia was not always peaceful: indigent mountainy Ossetians, every time, when they had an opportunity, used to rob, startle, throw out from the villages and even kill unarmed Georgian peasants without any esteem.
In 1774-1781 North Caucasian Ossetians, together with Kabardinians became the guardians of Russia. Ossetians liberated from the Kabardinian feudals’ guardianship started to settle from the gorges of Caucasus in the lowlands of the river Tergi edges, from where Russians expelled Ingushians. Ossetians became reliable allies of Russian authorities in Caucasia and Ossetia – the foothold of Russian imperialistic ideas. The encouragement and usage of Ossetians for fighting first against Kabardinians and Ingushians and afterwards against Georgians, from the side of Russia was only divide ed impera policy fulfillment and nothing more, otherwise the fate of Ossetians and Ossetia, as well as the fate of Ingushians and other Caucasian ethnoses, among which some of them are even totally wiped out ,,by dint of” Russia did not disturb Russia.
In 1801 the kingdom of Kartli-Kakheti turned out to be consisting in Russia and since then among Ossetians settled in Georgia and native Georgian population Russian administrators became the mediators, who, at every turn, in a conflict situations always supported Ossetians.
At the very beginning of the 19th century Russians snap away from Tbilisi government the territory of historical Dvaleti which was at the upper loin of the river Ardon and which always constituted as the part of Georgia and today appears as a part of the Russian federation – North Ossetia.
Yet in 20-ies of the 19th century, for marking Georgian territories inhabited with Ossetians, Russians established the term ,,South Ossetia”, where the insidious design of further dismember and disbandment of Georgia is enclosed. Here is implied the following: there exists Ossetia, divided into two parts – into the North and the South Ossetia, the unification of which is just the point of time.
It’s worthwhile that in recent Russian language publications a new term – ,,Trialeti Ossetia” emerged as well and hereby professedly was expressed the appetite of all three ,,Ossetias” unification, which should devastate Georgia. It’s fitty to the point and we should say as well that Ossetians’ compact settlements in Trialeti are relatively new formations. These settlements were framed in reliance of Trialeti mountain pastures (summer pastures), belongings to Shida Kartli Georgian villages, which, under 1866 reform were passed to Ossetians, living there under the refugee (leaseholders) status fairly free of charge. Ossetians had to pay 3 rubles for desiatina (apr.12000sq.m), while the law forced Georgian peasants to buy one desiatina of his own land for 60 rubles.
According to this reform authorities of Russia hit two targets straightway: firstly, split Georgian traditional agriculture, separating from each other mountains and lowlands, in the second place, represented by Ossetians settled in the very middle Kartli, gained in once opinion reliable footing for prevention and liquidation of forthcoming rebellion of freedom-loving Georgians bearing state traditions.
On 26 May 1918 Georgia regained its independence. The Democratic Republic of Georgia was established within historical boundaries of Georgia, which was recognized by number of states of the world (in May 1920 recognized even by Russia) and de-facto recognized by the League of Nations too. Evidently Russia could not stand the collapse of the empire and instantly started to run ,,the Ossetian Trump”.
In 1918, as well as in 2008, they landed military troops from the North Caucasia in Georgia and under the slogan of consolidation of the ,,South Ossetia” with the Soviet Russia accomplished the inspiration of Ossetians’ anti-Georgian rebellion. Georgian guards by the agency of the native Georgian and Ossetian population suppressed the Bolsheviks rebellion. The rebellion was replayed again in 1919 and 1920 and ended with the same result.
But in February 1921 Russia, in its own typical manner, unilaterally violated the agreement signed 8 months ahead and conquered the Democratic Republic of Georgia. The government of the Bolshevik Russia ,,punished” uncompromising Georgia and on the account of its historical territories ,,awarded” all those who helped in conquering Georgia: territory of historical Dvaleti in the spring of Ardon river and the city Sochi with its surroundings was assigned to the Russian Federation, Saingilo – to Azerbaijan, lower Kartli mountains – Lore-Bambaki, settled that time mostly by Azerbaijanians – to Armenia and historical Tao-Klarjeti, Karsi region and the part of Batumi region – to Turkey. The praise of Ossetians of Geogia was notably marked.
Under the Revcom resolution of 1921, 31 October, in the northern part of the central Georgia ,,The Autonomous District of the South Ossetia” was established, with its centre in Tskhinvali, where only several Ossetian families lived at that time (It should be stressed that ,,the Autonomous Republic of the North Ossetia” was established after two years).
The toponymic (place-name) pair – ,,South” and ,,North” Ossetias were legitimated in such a way, – the long lasting mine, which was animated by the central government of Russia instantly, in 1990, when Georgia started to restore its independence. Before it was 70 years of the Soviet system, which was good only for the party nomenclatura, notwithstanding its ethnicity.
Jews were banished from Tskhinvali, the number of Georgians was diminished and the ethnic cleansing started in the Autonomous District, though all these happened ,,in a peaceful manner” : nobody could hear a human being who could put forth voice. The artificiality and deformity of the territorial formation of the ,,South Ossetia” are reflecting from the next points: the central region – Liakhvi gorge, with Tskhinvali, totally was separated from the Akhalgori district, Ksani and Lekhura gorges, where one can get from Tskhinvali only via Gori. Jejori and Kvirila gorges are separated as well from Tskhinvali, which properly are the parts of Racha and Imereti, respectivelly…
But one should mention as well that in Liakhvi gorge, as in Ksani, Georgians and Ossetians used to live peacefully side by side and as far as they both are Orthodox Christians, the mixed weddings between them were quite frequent. Unlike ,,The North Ossetia” Ossetian schools were in ,,The South Ossetia”, scientific-research and pedagogical institutes worked, books, newspapers and magazines were published on the Ossetian language, one could hear Ossetian speech, while in the North Ossetia Ossetian was replaced by Russian.
Perestroika and the painful process of the Soviet Union collapse were ahead.