While some villagers in western Georgia restore statues to Stalin, the people of Areshperani celebrate another prodigy. This small village of 150 in Kakheti, western Georgia, is a centre for the country’s Ossetian community, and a home to an immense statue of Kosta Khetagurov, the Ossetian national poet.

Every year on 21 October, Ossetians come from across Georgia to Areshperani for the Kostaoba festival, paying homage to Khetagurov and his work. Not all are so appreciative. In 1995-1996, the monument was blown up with explosives by persons unknown, probably in an act of xenophobic vandalism. It was only reconstructed under Georgia’s reformist president Mikheil Saakashvili.

It was an important gesture. Relations between Georgians and Ossetians may be cordial, but they haven’t always been easy. In this month in 2008, war broke out between Georgia and Russia over the small, mountainous territory of South Ossetia.

Surviving the peace has proven difficult. Hard times, not hatred, has led many ethnic Ossetians to leave Georgia

The five-day conflict saw hundreds of civilian casualties. Hundreds of thousands of local residents, mostly ethnic Georgians, were displaced. Russian president Dmitry Medvedev then recognised South Ossetia as an independent state. Georgia, along with the vast majority of states, considers this region to be under Russian occupation.

But surviving the peace has proven difficult. Hard times, not hatred, has led many ethnic Ossetians to leave Georgia, and those who remain are rapidly assimilating.

To Vladik

We’re drinking coffee outside the house of Zeinab Khusoeva, 61, who well remembers the day when Saakashvili restored Areshperani’s statue to Khetagurov. “We stood there with our khachapuri [geo: cheese pie] and wine as Saakashvili arrived with his retinue to rededicate the statue,” she tells me. “They landed in the schoolyard… in two helicopters”.

A few dogs wander through the dust, a couple of local kids are watching with interest as Zeinab teaches me a few words in Ossetian. Judging by their curious faces, I can tell it’s a learning curve for them too.

“Buznyg — thank you”. “Booz-neg?” “Buznyg”.

Zeinab estimates that today just ten percent of the local residents are Ossetians, adding that migrants from Ajara, western Georgia, resettled after landslides and floods, now live in their empty homes.

Areshperani is seen as a centre for Ossetian culture due to the Kostaoba festival. However, it took some searching to find local Ossetian residents.

This statue to Kosta Khetagurov, the Ossetian national poet, stands outside Areshpani’s secondary school. (c) Maxim Edwards. All rights reserved.Nino Margeeva, Zeinab’s neighbour, approaches us, squinting in the sunlight. She sits in the shade, and turns to squint at me instead. Margeeva’s story is common for many Ossetians in Georgia — she’s married to a Georgian, and has a Georgian grandmother too. Most people have a mixed heritage around here.

Georgia is known for its ethnic diversity. Its largest minority groups, Armenians and Azerbaijanis in the south, are poorly integrated — many don’t speak Georgian fluently. In contrast, Ossetians are traditionally Orthodox Christians like the Georgian majority, and overwhelmingly speak fluent Georgian.

Since 2002, the Ossetian population in Georgia (excluding the breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia) has more than halved — from 38,028 in 2002 to 14,385 in 2014. A similarly sharp drop can be seen in two Georgian provinces with a traditionally high Ossetian population: the far eastern province of Kakheti and the government-controlled areas of Shida Kartli. Much of this central province is controlled by the breakaway South Ossetian government.

Walking the streets of Areshperani, it’s not difficult to see why people are leaving. Kakheti is rich in fertile land, vineyards and tourist attractions. But it’s not enough

The long-awaited census of 2014 confirmed grim suspicions. Georgia’s population had shrunk by 15% in just 12 years. Poor economic prospects in rural areas have led to depopulation — another 61 villages were abandoned in the same period. In fact, the capital Tbilisi was the only region of the country whose population grew at all.

Walking the streets of Areshperani, it’s not difficult to see why people are leaving. Kakheti is rich in fertile land, vineyards and tourist attractions. But it’s not enough.

Villagers are leaving, says Margeeva. According to unofficial estimates, some 40% of them have left since the 2008 war. The Ossetians are going over the mountains “to Vladik”, as she affectionately calls Vladikavkaz, the capital of North Ossetia, which is an autonomous republic in Russia.

Speaking lessons

The school at Areshperani is one of three left in Georgia where Ossetian remains a compulsory subject. According to the 2014 census, only 5,968 of Georgia’s Ossetians can speak Ossetian, an Indo-Iranian language. This is part of a broader trend — local authorities in both North and South Ossetia are concerned about its fate.

In “Vladik”, they’re switching to Russian; in Tbilisi, to Georgian. There’s been an Ossetian language Sunday school in Georgia’s capital since 1907. A large proportion of Tbilisi’s Ossetians arrived here during Soviet-era industrialisation, settling in the new suburban districts adjacent to the main railway line. Some Ossetians still live here on Java Street, in the suburb of Nakhalovka.

If you’re lucky, you’ll find Khabidzgina (Oss: ossetian cheese pie) in a few local restaurants. However, there are no Ossetian monuments to speak of, save for a small statue to Khetagurov in the centre, unveiled by Saakashvili in 2007.

The name of Zviad Gamsakhurdia, Georgia’s first post-Soviet president, conjures up dark times for Georgia’s ethnic minorities

Mariam Dzagoeva, a Tbilisi-based Ossetian journalist, writes of one ambitious project in the city to rekindle the Ossetian language. Founded in 2015, the Centre for Georgian-Ossetian relations at Tbilisi’s Javakhishvili State University offers courses for Ossetian language learners, and much more besides.

Nailia Bepieva, the centre’s director, and her colleagues have published Ossetian-Georgian dictionaries and phrasebooks, as well as the translated works of Ossetian poets in Georgian. Bepieva aims for the centre to be of practical use to the Ossetian community.

Despite census figures to the contrary, Bepieva told me that reports of the Ossetian language’s death have been greatly exaggerated. In any case, she adds, Ossetian is far from alone in UNESCO’s handbook of endangered languages. Despite Bepieva’s best efforts, it’s rarely heard on the streets of Tbilisi.

“Guests”

The name of Zviad Gamsakhurdia, Georgia’s first post-Soviet president, conjures up dark times for Georgia’s ethnic minorities. A dissident-turned-demagogue, Gamsakhurdia promoted an extreme Georgian nationalist political programme in the early 1990s. In this view, Ossetians were guests on Georgian territory, and their political demands meant they had overstayed their welcome.

In 1990, Gamsakhurdia revoked the autonomy of South Ossetia. Enraged Ossetians then demanded an upgrade of their autonomous republic to a union republic, which would have eased their succession after the unravelling of the USSR. The writing was now on the wall.

By December, a military conflict was imminent — between 60 and 100 villages were burnt down and Georgian and Ossetian militias (the latter with some Russian military assistance) committed numerous human rights abuses.

In 1992, Georgia’s new president Shevardnadze brokered a ceasefire in Sochi. South Ossetia was to remain a confused patchwork of Georgian government and Ossetian militia-controlled enclaves and exclaves until 2008.

A banner depicting Zviad Gamsakhurdia flickers in the wind at Tbilisi’s Dry Bridge market (c) Maxim Edwards. All rights reserved.Some Ossetians fled Georgia for Russia, crossing the mountains to their compatriots in North Ossetia. By 1992, a brutal territorial conflict broke out between North Ossetians and their Ingush neighbours to the east. The presence of between 70,000 and 100,000 Ossetian refugees from Georgia only fuelled the flames.

Ethnic solidarity proved a fickle thing. In troubled times, these Ossetian refugees were useful in keeping statistics favourable. Yet Valery Dzutsati, a North Ossetian analyst, told me of several “layers of intolerance” towards the new arrivals. The more standard complaints against labour migrants and refugees (perceived competition for housing and jobs) soon emerged.

Not only are North Ossetians more Russified — they also speak a different dialect of Ossetian. The Digor and Iron dialects are distinct, and not entirely mutually intelligible

More than mountains divide Ossetians north and south of the Caucasus mountains. According to a 2013 estimate, up to 15% of North Ossetia’s population practice Islam. Some Muslim Ossetians, says Dzutsati, feared that the influx of Christian Ossetians would undermine their already precarious situation in the region.

Not only are North Ossetians more Russified — they also speak a different dialect of Ossetian. The Digor and Iron dialects are distinct, and not entirely mutually intelligible.

“A couple of weeks ago, my cousin visited from North Ossetia,” Zarina Sanakoyeva, a South Ossetia-based journalist, told me in an online exchange. “We strolled around Tskhinvali [the de-facto capital]. When I mentioned to him that young people here regularly speak Ossetian, or when the waiter in a cafe addressed us in Ossetian, he laughed. He simply wasn’t used to it.”

De-facto lives

The central motorway connecting central and western Georgia passes just kilometres from the de-facto border of South Ossetia.

As you head to the regional capital of Gori from Tbilisi, a large green warning sign can be seen in the fields to the right. In recent years, the sign has crept closer as Russian soldiers and their South Ossetian colleagues unroll the barbed wire deeper into Georgian territory, cutting off fields, roads, and even individual villagers in the process.

Here in Shida Kartli region, this “borderisation” has dealt an economic blow to the locals. Times past had seen small-scale commerce and the personal contact it brings. Observers lauded the nearby Ergneti market on the de-facto border as an example of local co-operation — others slated it as a conduit for corruption (Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili closed it down in 2004).

While up to 23,000 ethnic Georgians may have fled South Ossetia in the 1991-1992 war, nearly 15,000 more did so in 2008. There are approximately around 125,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) from South Ossetia in Georgia today. Together with IDPs from Abkhazia, they number 265,000.

The IDP camp where Galina Kelekhsayeva lives, lies just off the main road between central and western Georgia. (c) Maxim Edwards. All rights reserved.Displaced people are poorly integrated and await an ever-receding return home. Georgian politicians may nurture these grievances in public, but IDPs say that they rarely — if ever — make good on their promises.

A small IDP camp on this road, between the villages of Natsreti and Shavshvebi, is but one example. A couple of hundred IDP families live here, in small concrete huts capped with red metal roofs. It’s spartan, efficient enough. Some IDPs have made ends meet; vegetable gardens are in bloom, South Ossetia is (technically) just down the road.

“It’s not about raising awareness,” sighs Galina Kelekhsayeva, “everybody’s aware. It’s about resources”. Galina should know. Born in South Ossetia in 1959, she’s seen her own successes. She’s worked on a number of projects empowering refugee women, and has received grants from international donors. On the side, Galina sews bedsheets to sell at the market in Gori.

Galina is an ethnic Ossetian, a fact which — in the grand scheme of things — only came to matter not so long ago. Her husband, who sits here with us in her living room, is Georgian. In the 1990s, she tells me, Ossetians were harassed by Georgian militias and many of their villages burnt. “In 2008, it was the Georgians’ turn to leave.”

The story of Galina’s flight from South Ossetia begins with the same tragic words of many refugee histories, particularly in the South Caucasus: “We thought we’d only be gone for a few days”

For nationalists, mixed families could mean mixed loyalties. Galina’s roots lie in the Java region of South Ossetia, a mountainous, mostly Ossetian-populated area. As was common for many minority groups, Galina studied in a Russian-language school. After graduation in 1981, she soon found work as a teacher of German and Ossetian.

She can even write her grant applications in Georgian now. There’s little need for Ossetian anymore — her three grandchildren can’t speak it.

The story of Galina’s flight from South Ossetia begins with the same tragic words of many refugee histories, particularly in the South Caucasus. “We thought we’d only be gone for a few days”.

By 2008, Galina and her family were living near the mostly Georgian village of Kurta, where she worked as a teacher.

On the eve of the war that August, Georgian villagers fled Kurta. Galina, her husband and her children followed suit, running through the forest.

Galina Kelekhsayeva was resettled to this IDP camp outside Shavshvebi in December 2008. (c) Maxim Edwards. All rights reserved.The following month, Galina managed to visit her old house outside Kurta. South Ossetian militias had looted and torched the village. “I found two of my dogs alive, and a few chickens. Otherwise, nobody and nothing was left. I wasn’t there long”.

At the time of writing, Kurta remains a ghost town.

For three months, the family lived in a converted kindergarten in Tbilisi. In December 2015, the state resettled them here, a stone’s throw from the de-facto border. The conditions were pretty de-facto too, although over the years she has been able to make a home of this concrete hut.

Galina left family in South Ossetia — her infirm mother stayed behind in the hamlet of Kemerti. For several months, the family knew nothing about her fate. One day, a phone call came from the Red Cross. They’d found Galina’s mother alive, if not so well, in Vladikavkaz, where she died six years later.

Twenty-five years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the story of Georgia’s Ossetians sheds light on the scramble for Soviet spoils

Occasional incidents aside, her ethnicity is of no concern. She has good relations with her Georgian IDP neighbours. The nearby villages here are poor places, whose Georgian and Ossetian residents have bigger problems to tend to than old wounds. Gamsakhurdia is dead and buried, though perhaps not deep enough. Shortly after her arrival, a local official asked Galina why she hadn’t changed her surname.

Galina suggests that I visit her daughter in the nearby village of Tsitelubani. I’ll have to get permission from the local police headquarters in Gori. Their house is a couple of hundred metres from the de-facto border. Last year, South Ossetian border guards annexed the village cemetery, and a sizeable piece of the family’s land.

Ethnic Ossetians are among those Georgian citizens who have suffered from the creeping border. It is a raw tragedy they too must share.

Modern passions

Twenty-five years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the story of Georgia’s Ossetians sheds light on the scramble for Soviet spoils.

Looking back at the South Caucasus in those years demands that we think again about “ethnic conflict”. Many writers on the region describe the insurgencies and wars which erupted in the 1990s as the result of ancient hatreds. As the USSR fractured, the argument goes, these thawed and ran amok.

Yet the bloodshed in Abkhazia and South Ossetia was an all too modern tragedy. The USSR was built as a multi-ethnic federation; those ethnic groups provided with autonomous regions and republics gained the institutions of (mini)-statehood.

The bloodshed in Abkhazia and South Ossetia was an all too modern tragedy

In Georgia, conflict didn’t break out among the most numerous or even least integrated minorities. It began with those who feared the loss of their autonomy and institutions with the rise of a Georgian nationalist government.

Ossetians spoke Georgian, worshipped alongside Georgians and married Georgians. That they took up arms in the 1990s does not reflect the “narcissism of small differences”, but a failure to compromise after these small differences had been institutionalised by the Soviet state. Weak states could not prevent the escalation to war.

That many Ossetians leave their villages in search of a better life places them alongside their Georgian neighbours in a broader post-Soviet story of rural poverty and migration. A story which, for what it’s worth, treats all its characters — Georgian or Ossetian — with equal indignity.

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