The brief war between Georgia and Russia in 2008 was a watershed moment for the small community of ethnic Ossetians living in territory controlled by Georgia.
From that moment on, a steady trickle of Ossetians has upped sticks and moved to places like North Ossetia-Alania, a region of Russia, or further afield, to Moscow and St. Petersburg. Such hard data as is available covers a broad timeframe, but it nevertheless lays bare the scale of the change. Between 2002 and 2014 the Ossetian population of Georgian-controlled territory went from around 38,000 to almost 14,400.
Those who have stayed have assimilated gradually into Georgian society. As Ossetian villages empty out, so the prominence of Ossetian culture has declined.
Ossetians, a population of Iranic ethnic origin, are believed to have inhabited the region for nearly two millennia. Wars of conquest by surrounding major powers placed the Ossetians, along with the many other diverse peoples of the Caucasus, in contentious circumstances. Borders were drawn and redrawn with little regard for local populations.
Between the collapse of the Soviet Union and the 2008 war, Georgian-Ossetian relations had been characterized by persistent simmering tensions. These tensions would flare up at times and then subside periodically. Ultimately, this uneasy coexistence would pave the way for what could be called an opportunistic land grab by Russia, which would come to recognize the Georgian territory of South Ossetia as an independent nation after the 2008 war (as it did with Georgia's other breakaway region, Abkhazia). Only a handful of other countries followed suit.
The Ossetians who continued to live in unoccupied parts of Georgia are spread widely across the country, in regions like Kakheti, Shida Kartli, Mtskheta-Mtianeti and Tbilisi. Generally, they live cheek-by-jowl with ethnic Georgians in locations where they account for the larger segment of the population.
Lacking any centralized Ossetian-majority cities or towns, pockets of Ossetian communities exist without any cultural thread to connect people to one another.
The town of Areshperani, in Kakheti, is relatively isolated from what is commonly regarded as core Ossetian-inhabited areas, typically located on the edge of breakaway South Ossetia. In the center stands a statue of Ossetian poet Kosta Khetagurov – one of very few, if not the only, explicitly Ossetian monuments in Georgian-controlled territory.
A 75-year-old Ossetian woman from Shida Kartli – speaking anonymously due to the sensitivities surrounding the issue of ethnic politics – talked about how the bulk of the people who remained in her village were advanced in age. When asked where the young people had gone, she simply said: “Vladikavkaz.” That city is the capital of Russia’s North Ossetia.
This points to a curious phenomenon. Channels of contact are seemingly weak between unoccupied Georgia’s Ossetians and those in South Ossetia, but they are often stronger with Ossetians living in Russia proper.
Attitudes toward Russia’s invasion in 2008 are complicated. Georgia’s Ossetians see Russia as the aggressor, but they acknowledge that pro-independence sentiments were real. Moscow exploited real grievances to justify its military campaign against a Western-leaning Georgia.
In any event, Ossetians in villages like Areshperani, which lies far from South Ossetia, and Nigoza, which is right next to it, have been increasingly distant from their ethnic roots. Georgian has become the primary language in many households. Most, if not all, schools that once taught Ossetian have reverted to full Georgian learning.
Young people have begun moving to cities where they blend into Georgian communities seamlessly due to a lack of a connection to their Ossetian roots. Stories of Ossetian legends, folklore and heritage are all but lost, leaving the Ossetians on the brink of complete assimilation.
The Georgian government is doing nothing to halt this slow death of Ossetian identity. Support for communities and cultural institutions is wholly absent. Community members add, though, that they do not sense discrimination as being to blame. They view their Georgian neighbors as being victims of the same lack of opportunities.
In any event, with things as they stand, the disappearance of spoken Ossetian in Georgia looks all but inevitable. As Georgian-Ossetians continue to see their presence dwindle and their neighbors leave for places like Russia, the line between South Ossetia and Georgia will only harden. North and South Ossetia will be inhabited by Ossetians, and Georgia will evolve into an increasingly monoethnic, monocultural space.
Only awareness and government action can halt or reverse this trend.
Alex Mutnansky is a PhD candidate at Birkbeck, University of London