This September, an initiative group calling itself the South Ossetian People’s Front held a meeting in the Tskhinvali region to express its desire to join the All-Russia People’s Front created by Russian Prime-Minister Vladimir Putin. Initiators of the Ossetian People’s Front – the ruling party Edinstvo and pro-governmental People’s Party – set the aim of integrating South Ossetia into Russia as soon as possible.
South Ossetian sources report that eight-hundred citizens joined the ranks of the new movement in a single day. Leaders of the initiative hope to continue increasing the number of supporters.
The leader of the movement, Tarzan Kokoity, declared that the dream of South Ossetian people is “the unification with their Northern brethren [North Ossetians] into one state.”
The “century-old dream” of Ossetian people has changed since the 1920s. After occupation of Georgia by Soviet Russia and creation of the South Ossetian Autonomous Republic within the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic, Ossetian communists favored unification of North and South Ossetia within the territory of Georgia.
Correspondence among high-level Soviet officials reveals that the idea of creating a unified Ossetia within the territory of Georgia was raised with Joseph Stalin in 1925 when the Soviet leader met with an Ossetian delegation. Stalin later wrote: “A close study of this issue convinced me that we can agree to the unification of South and North Ossetia into an autonomous republic within the territory of Georgia.”
At that time, congresses and meetings were held in North Ossetia to demand unification with South Ossetia. In addition to South Ossetia and North Ossetia, the new Ossetia was to include the Mozdoksky district, which was not subordinated to Vladikavkaz then.
The Joint State Political Directorate (OGPU), the secret police operating under the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, prepared for the Soviet leadership several extensive reports about the sentiments of ethnic Ossetians. One report noted that the Ossetian demand for unification was prompted by the lack of arable lands in North Ossetia. Another contributing factor according to the OGPU report was an “excess” of intelligentsia in North Ossetia who took a nationalistic stance. The special services noted with dissatisfaction that this educated segment of North Ossetian society was of bourgeois origin and entertained “narrow nationalistic views.” Moreover, Ossetians’ aspiration to merge with Transcaucasia (Georgia) was strengthened because “in the view of current Ossetian intelligentsia, they have higher prospects for national development there.”
Despite this warning, Stalin did not abandon the idea of unification. On 25 May 1925, the Central Executive Committee, the executive body of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, considered the issue of unification of South and North Ossetia into an autonomous republic within Georgia. The Committee did not make a final decision and instead tasked the Secretary of the Committee, Aleksei Kisilev, to work on this issue with the leaderships of North Caucasus and Georgia. North Ossetia representative Simon Tamkoev arrived in Tbilisi to prepare the transfer of North Ossetia under the jurisdiction of Georgia.
On 28 June 1925, the head of the regional committee of the communist party of Georgia, Sergo Orjonikidze, sent a written report to Stalin about the visit of the Ossetian delegation and asked for further directives. In response, Stalin informed Orjonikidze that “he, personally, was not against Ossetians’ plan,” but said he was hesitant because of resistance from the regional committee of North Caucasus.
Stalin made his final decision in August 1925. He sent a long letter to the Politburo [Political Bureau of the Central Committee] in which he noted that the determination of Ossetians to create a united republic and integrate with Georgia could trigger similar moves in other national republics of North Caucasus. Stalin feared that might stimulate Cossack demand for creation of their own republic and could also boost “the most dangerous type of nationalism” – Russian nationalism. Stalin believed that would be followed by Bashkiria and Tatarstan demanding that they too be separated from Russia.
Given those concerns, Stalin rejected the plan for unification of Ossetia within the borders of Georgia. In following years, Ossetian intelligentsia made repeated attempts to revisit the issue. However, repressions that started in 1937 exterminated a large part of the intelligentsia and the issue was naturally off the agenda.
Six decades later, the disparity between Ossetians living in the Russian Federation and those in Georgia became obvious.
As the First Secretary of the Regional Communist Party Committee of North Ossetia, Akhsarbek Galazov, said in 1983: “I do frankly pity the youth of my ethnicity…. when they feel embarrassed at their own home because of their total ignorance of Ossetian culture.” According to Galazov, the first Ossetian-language school in North Ossetia was not opened until 1982.
The level of development of Ossetian language and culture in South Ossetia starkly differed from that in North Ossetia. The First Secretary of the Regional Communist Party Committee of South Ossetia, Anatoly Chekhoyev, declared in 1989 that a total of 97 Ossetian schools operated in Georgia, of which 90 schools were in South Ossetia and the remaining ones in Tbilisi, Borjomi, Kareli and Lagodekhi. There was a pedagogic higher educational institution in Tskhinvali. According to the 1979 population census, out of 65,000 Ossetians living in South Ossetia only 820 did not know Ossetian language. “This is one of the best indicators for ethnic groups throughout the Soviet Union,” Chekhoev noted.
Nevertheless, during the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the Tskhinvali authority and local nationalists put forward the issue of separating from Georgia and integrating into Russia.
According to a survey prepared by UNESCO in 2009, the Ossetian language is among the world languages on the verge of extinction. This category of languages also includes Abkhazian and almost all North Caucasian languages. A total of 136 languages face this risk in the Russian Federation.