Located to the south of the Caucasian mountain range, South Ossetia has a small and mountainous territory with a surface area of 3,990 square kilometers. Its population is about 70,000. There are about 50,000 Ossetians, 15,000 Georgians and 5,000 other Soviet peoples. In North Ossetia, there are about 500,000 Ossetians. When Ossetians living in the Russian Federation and northern Caucasus and the Ossetian diaspora are calculated, there about 800,000 Ossetians in the world. Ossetians have two prominent religions. After czarist Russia invaded the north Caucasus, the majority of the Muslim Ossetians were forced to migrate to Anatolia in 1864 and immediately after the Ottoman-Russian War of 1877-1878. Although they have been living in Anatolia for 130 years, the Ossetian presence in Turkey is not well known. Today, the majority of these Ossetians live in Ankara and İstanbul. As relations with the Caucasus increased, followed by a growing awareness of the region, definitions, too, have changed. There are 24 Ossetian villages in central and eastern Anatolia. The Ossetians living in Turkey are divided into three major groups, depending on their history of immigration and ensuing events: those living in Kars (Sarıkamış) and Erzurum, those living in Sivas, Tokat and Yozgat, and those living in Muş and Bitlis. Today, about 95 percent of South Ossetia's population is Orthodox Christian, while 5 percent are Muslims.
Its capital is Tskhinvali. Other notable cities are Java, Leningori and Znauri.
Ossetians claim to be the descendants of Alans and tend to designate themselves as Alans. For this reason, in November 1994, the word "Alania" was added to the name of North Ossetia to make the official designation "the Republic of North Ossetia -- Alania." Caucasian peoples give names such as Kusha, Os, Yas and Asetin to Ossetians. South Ossetians are designated by North Ossetians as Khussar.
In North Ossetia, Ossetians are divided into two major groups: Iron and Digor. The majority of the Ossetian population are Irons, whose dialect is regarded as the language of literature. Digors are in the minority and live toward the country's west. South Ossetians are further divided into several groups, each having different accents in the Iron dialect.
During the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the South Ossetian Autonomous Oblast's regional council on Nov. 10, 1989 asked the Supreme Soviet of the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic for the region to be upgraded to that of autonomous republic. However this application was rejected on Nov. 16, 1989, and Georgian troops attacked and besieged Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia, on Nov. 23, 1989. After Georgia declared independence, the Georgian Parliament passed a bill that effectively abolished South Ossetia's autonomous status, on Dec. 11, 1990. From Jan. 5-6, 1991, violent conflict broke out as Georgian troops were sent by the Georgian government headed by Zviad Gamsakhurdia to South Ossetia, particular its capital Tskhinvali. On May 4, 1991, the South Ossetian Parliament declared secession from Georgia and announced its intention to unite with the North Ossetia Federated Republic, which was located within the borders of the Russian Federation. The new Georgian administration that assumed office after the military coup of Jan. 6, 1992 attempted to enter South Ossetia once again. Conflicts erupted once again when 99 percent of Ossetians voted for independence in the referendum held on Jan. 19, 1992. However a peacekeeping force of 4,000 Russians, Georgians and North and South Ossetians was established on July 14, 1992 and deployed to the region to implement a ceasefire.
From Jan. 5-6, 1991, the Joint Monitoring Commission was set up with participation of the Russian Federation in order to monitor the ceasefire between Georgian and Ossetian troops. Upon Georgia's demand, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) set up a mission in Georgia to monitor the peacekeeping operation in December 1992. In the referendum held on April 8, 2001, South Ossetians adopted a new constitution that listed Ossetian language as the official language of the country in addition to Russian.
When Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili assumed office, he made the reassertion of Georgian territorial integrity a political priority. In June 2004, he proposed the Plan for Reconciliation with Ossetia and decided to launch economic projects geared toward the region.
In two referendums, held in 1993 and 2001, South Ossetia declared independence from Georgia. On Nov. 12, 2006, South Ossetia held presidential election and a referendum for independence. Eduard Kokoity was re-elected president of South Ossetia by securing 98.1 percent of the vote. In the referendum for independence, 99.98 of Ossetians voted "yes." In the elections held parallel to these elections and supported by Tbilisi, Dmitri Sanakoev was elected president of South Ossetia. Saakashvili visited the region on March 19, 2007, met Sanakoev, and, following this meeting, instructed that an administrative unit be established in South Ossetia. A bill was drafted to this end and introduced to the Georgian Parliament. Under this bill, Kokoity and Sanakoev were expected to set up a temporary administrative unit that would work out the autonomous status of the region, and this temporary administration would be authorized to appoint its own deputy ministers for internal affairs, finance, economy, science and education, health and social security, culture, agriculture, justice and environment. It further suggested that rehabilitation projects be implemented and a special package of financial measures prepared for the region. The Georgian government sped up its activities for establishing a temporary administrative unit in South Ossetia, started direct talks with the alternative government in the region and made an agreement with this alternative government for designating this administrative unit as South Ossetia. Georgia also called on the Kokoity government to be part of these talks. The bill concerning the establishment of an administrative unit in South Ossetia was passed by the Georgian Parliament on May 8, 2007, and Sanakoev as appointed by Georgian President Saakashvili as the head of this administrative unit on May 10.
The existing South Ossetian government that declared unilateral independence from Georgia is as follows: President Eduard Cabeviç Kokoity, Prime Minister Yuri Morozov, Parliament Speaker Znaur Gassiev, Deputy President Tarzan Kokoyti, Deputy President Yuri Dzitstsoyti, Chief Deputy Prime Minister Boris Çoçiev, Deputy Prime Minister Georgi Sanakoev, Presidential Board head Eduard Kotayev, Finance Minister Aze Habalova, Defense Minister Anatoli Baronkeviç, Interior Minister Mihail Mindzaev, Justice Minister Merab Çigoev, Foreign Minister Murat Cioev, Health Minister Cemal Cigkaev, Education Minister Alla Cioyeva, Culture Minister Konstantin Puhaev, Environment Minister Atarbeg Tediyev, Transportation Minister Rudolf Tshovrbegov, Agriculture and Rural Affairs Minister Aleksandr Puhaev and Economy and External Economic Relations Minister Rodionov Cussoev.
After Kosovo declared independence on Feb. 17, 2008, the South Ossetian Parliament called on the Russian Federation, the Commonwealth of Independent State (CIS), the UN and the EU to recognize the independence of South Ossetia, on March 3, 2008. In the resolution passed by the South Ossetian Parliament, it was argued that the case of Kosovo was a conclusive example that invalidated the argument for "territorial integrity of sovereign states."
There were expectations that Georgian President Saakashvili would try to reinforce his weakened power with a military success and ease the country's NATO membership by making Abkhazia and South Ossetia part of Georgia again. These expectations proved true when the Georgian military forces launched an incursion into South Ossetia in the early hours of Aug. 8.