A Key to the Caucasus Conflict

An uneasy truce now holds sway between Georgian and Russian forces in the region, following Georgia's attempt to take over the tiny breakaway state of South Ossetia last week.

Each side has accused the other of aggression, ethnic cleansing and genocide.

To help shed light on the events of the last week, and on the complicated underlying tensions at play, a Q & A on the conflict follows.

WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT?

Essentially, it's about the future status of South Ossetia, the tiny breakaway state (population 70,000) on Georgia's northern border with Russia that has had virtual autonomy from Georgia since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Georgia's president, Mikhail Saakashvili, offered autonomy to South Ossetia within a single Georgian state in 2004. The South Ossetians refused and, in 2006, voted in a referendum for complete independence from Georgia.

On Aug. 7, on the eve of the Olympics, Georgia attacked South Ossetia using ground and air forces. Russia sent thousands of troops into South Ossetia and, within days, occupied the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali.

SO GEORGIA STARTED THIS?

Georgia claims that Russia is the aggressor, saying that Russian fighter jets entered Georgian airspace last month and also that Russia shot down Georgian unmanned reconnaissance planes.

Russia says it is acting as a peacekeeper in South Ossetia. Half of its citizens have taken up Moscow's offer of a Russian passport and all consider themselves to be ethnically distinct from the Georgians. Saakashvili considers South Ossetia to be an integral part of Georgia and seeks to restore its "territorial integrity."

But Georgia did launch an all-out attack on the capital of South Ossetia on Aug. 7 at a time when it thought the attention of the world in general, and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in particular, would be on the Olympics. Russia promptly bombed Georgian military bases and sent tanks and troops into Georgia itself.

WHY DID RUSSIA GET INVOLVED?

South Ossetians want to join up with their ethnic brethren in North Ossetia, which is an autonomous republic within the Russian Federation. The Ossetians comprise a distinct ethnic group, of Russian stock, originally from the Russian plains south of the Don River.

Russia considers South Ossetia to be within its sphere of influence, along with the breakaway state of Abkhazia, in the western corner of Georgia. Georgia wants to join NATO and has been cultivating ties with Western Europe, and this infuriates Russia, given its distrust and concern about the expansion of the alliance to countries along its borders.

WHAT IS ABKHAZIA?

Abkhazia is another self-declared independent state between Georgia and Russia, on the east coast of the Black Sea. Its population is about half Christian, half Muslim.

Georgia believes that Abkhazia, like South Ossetia, should be part of Georgia. Russia has reportedly sent 9,000 troops into Abkhazia during the recent crisis, as "reinforcements for Abkhazian separatists."

WHAT ARE THE ETHNIC DIFFERENCES?

While the South Ossetians are of Russian stock and therefore European, the Georgians are part of Southwest Asia, in the Caucasus region. The two groups have a common religion, both being Orthodox Christians (and both hosting Muslim minorities).

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