South Ossetia is a country with limited recognition which has seceded from Georgia. It is under control of Russia, that can be considered an occupying power fully responsible for "border control" and military defense. Its mountainous, wild isolation gives South Ossetia both reasons to visit and reasons to think twice about it. There was a lot of damage inflicted during the 2008 war, and rehabilitation of the region is slow and stifled by corruption; government control is weak. Nearly 89% of the region is above 1,000 m; the southern lowlands are influenced by the same subtropical climate that blesses lowland Georgia.
- 1 Tskhinvali — the capital and the largest town in the region, home to the government of South Ossetia
- 2 Leningor (Russian & Ossetian)/ Akhalgori (Georgian) — a small town that was under Georgian control until 2008, home to the Lomisi Brewery
- 3 Java — nominally the administrative center of Georgia's Java district, but not under Georgian control
Central Georgia's Kartli region lies to its south and east and the Rioni Region to its west. To the north is the ethnically identical North Ossetia-Alania region of Russia's North Caucasus. The only UN members that recognize the Republic of South Ossetia are Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Nauru, and lastly Syria.
A person of Ossetia (oh-SEH-tee-ah) is an Ossete (oh-SEET). The ethnicity and language are Ossetian (oh-SEH-tee-ahn). The Ossetes belong to the ancient nation of Alans, which was located on the north side of the Caucasus mountains and is distinctive from the Georgians. Both communities have mixed together in the past in the area now known as South Ossetia.
Shortly after the Soviet Red Army conquered independent Democratic Republic of Georgia in 1921, South Ossetia was created as an autonomous region within the Georgian SSR of the Soviet Union. The boundary drawn in the 1920s caused many (ethnic) Georgian communities and lands to be included in the autonomous region, the consequences of which can still be witnessed today. In the late 1980s and early 1990s the Soviet Union was undermined by strong nationalist feelings among its various peoples, and the South Ossetians moved to secession from Georgia, opting a merger with their North Ossetian neighbors in Russia. The Georgian government overruled this by abolishing the autonomy in late 1990 which led to the 1991-1992 civil war between South Ossetian separatists and the Georgian national government. A Russian-brokered ceasefire in 1992 resulted in Russian peacekeeping deployment in the region under the Joint Control Commission (JCC).
After the civil war, South Ossetia was effectively independent; the Georgian government had little control over the highly autonomous region, which was ethnically cleansed of its Georgian population. Georgia's Rose Revolution of 2003 established a government keen to regain the lost control over Ajara, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, a region which had a similar separatist post-Soviet history.
Georgia's handling of the situation derailed in 2008 when Georgia shelled South Ossetia's capital Tskhinvali to assert its authority through a military campaign after a period of Russian backed Ossetian provocations. This back-fired when the Russian army entered the region through the Roki Tunnel and overran much of Georgia proper. A "6-point ceasefire agreement" was brokered by the EU between the Russians and Georgians. Eventually the Russian forces withdrew to the boundaries of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, leaving them well beyond Georgian control. Meanwhile both regions were quickly recognized by Russia as independent countries, using the Western-pushed Kosovo independence earlier that year as a precedent.
In effect this enabled Russia to legitimize its continued military presence, circumventing the ceasefire agreement which stipulated that Russia should withdraw its forces from Georgia to pre-conflict positions: Russia does not recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia as part of Georgia anymore and thus renders repeated international calls for compliance with the ceasefire agreement void. Since 2009 Russia has constructed a dozen military bases along the boundary line monitoring the boundary zone and enforcing a so called "international border" upon the local community, frequently arresting and detaining "violators".
The de facto South Ossetian government has since tried to merge the region with Russia, but so far this hasn't happened despite far reaching integration agreements signed with the Kremlin, just short of formal annexation.
While the separatist conflict between the de facto Ossetian authorities and the Georgian central government has cooled to a much lower level than during the 2008 war and despite a heavy Russian military presence, security and government control are both weak. The Ossetians are largely grateful for Russia's military intervention against Georgia.
However, it is mostly the remaining Georgian community of several thousand that bear the brunt of the aftermath of the war: increased boundary enforcement as "international border" by Russian and Ossetian troops means freedom of movement principles for local civilians are restricted. Local communities on both sides of the boundary have been separated, risking arrest and detention when trying to visit their farmland or relatives. Since 2013 fences and barbed wires have been constructed, sometimes right through villages.
According to the last Soviet census in 1989, the region had a population of 98,527 of which 65,233 (66%) Ossetian and 28,544 (29%) Georgian. According to unofficial estimates the population declined to roughly 70,000 by 2007 (~45,000 Ossetians and ~17,500 Georgians respectively). As result of the 2008 war and subsequent restrictive policies by the de facto South Ossetian authorities, the Georgian community in the region has been decimated by 2015 to 7% (or 3,966 - down from 4,600 or 9% in 2012) on a total population of 53,532. Most remaining Georgians in the region live in Leningor (Akhalgori) district, others live scattered in villages along the southern section of the boundary line.
Given the ongoing Georgian-Ossetian conflict, most people will find it offensive to be addressed in Georgian.
English is spoken by almost nobody. For this reason, the independent traveller requires a solid knowledge of Russian to get around.
It is not possible to visit South Ossetia from Georgia. The only way to go to Tskhinvali is via Vladikavkaz in Russia. All roads from Georgian controlled territory to South Ossetia are closed for foreigners, including between Ergneti and Tskhinvali, and to Akhalgori (Leningor). All three active Ossetian-run checkpoints (Sinaguri, Kardzmani, Leningor) are only selectively open to locals.
However, it is possible to get very close to the demarcation line and to view Tskhinvali a few km away. People come to Ergneti with goggles to try having a look at South Ossetia, which is fine as long as no Georgian military equipment or soldier is filmed.
From there, go onward by a mountain road that passes through the Roki Tunnel. There are buses. You will be at the mercy of the Russian authorities, but they are willing to let some people in, including journalists. If they allow you in, simply drive into the tunnel from Russia. When you exit, you will be in South Ossetia. Consider engaging the services of a guide/tour operator, who will say the right things and pay the right people at the right times.
Visas and permits
If travelling from Russia, the South Ossetian embassy (9 Kurcovoi Pereylok, ☏ Moscow should be able to arrange your documents. A South Ossetian Consular Agency in Vladikavkaz is at 43 Krasnodonskaya Ulitsa. Foreign access is restricted but not impossible. An invitation should be arranged according to the website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of South Ossetia: "foreign citizens arriving to the Republic of South Ossetia for tourism must address the Committee on youth policy, sports and tourism of the Republic of South Ossetia and ask to write an official invitation letter.") in
You must have at least double entry visa to Russia. There is no way out to the rest of Georgia: you have to re-enter Russia. Also, the Georgian Law on Occupied Territories applies to foreigners as well: this means that unwarranted visits to South Ossetia through the Russian border section are considered an illegal entry onto Georgian territory, as no Georgian immigration has been passed. Make sure your visit cannot be traced in your passport if you are going to Georgia afterwards.
Various companies run tours to the region. They offer a good advantage of sorting out all your paperwork and permits for you.
Kavkaz Explorers - offers week long itineraries. In the summer you can be driven around the main sites. In the winter you can trek across the mountain snow to remote hill stations. From US$700 per person per week (does not include transport to Vladikavkaz in Russia).
MarkoPoLo - Abkhazia, Nagorno Karabakh, Transnistria, Somaliland unrecognized country tour operator provides 3-7 day tours in each destination as well as custom tours
- In Tskhinvali there are sights related to the Russian-Georgian war of 2008.
- Mountains - South Ossetia is in the Caucasus mountains, and most of the region is over 1,000 m above sea level.
Exchange rates for Russian ruble
As of January 2020:
Exchange rates fluctuate. Current rates for these and other currencies are available from XE.com
The Russian ruble is the commonly used currency in South Ossetia.
Ossetian food, a Caucasian cuisine similar to but significantly different from Georgian cuisine, is delicious. Be sure to feast on Ossetian pie, a dish similar to khachapuri, but with meat and mushrooms instead of cheese.
South Ossetia is not dangerous anymore, but it's not yet easy to visit, due the absence of standardized formalities. If you can get an "approval to visit", you can go without hassle.
The Ossetes are understandably jumpy, and may arrest travelers taking photographs of, well, anything. Likewise, officials may believe that, by taking pictures, you are spying on their country. It's also a bad idea to voice your political opinions regarding the conflict; better to listen to locals' perspectives and to be vaguely sympathetic.
While the war and conflict has ended, the situation is far from over and medical supply is not always going to reliable and efficient. Heating, electricity, plumbing are basically commodities owing to years of failing infrastructure due to lack of investment. Likewise, the healthcare system is dilapidated - be sure to bring the necessary medical equipment and only buy bottled water.
- The only legal way in and out of South Ossetia is from Vladikavkaz in the province of North Ossetia in Russia. The roads from and to Georgia are closed to foreigners. There are buses and taxis going every day between Vladikavkaz and Tskhinvali
- The Russian border crossing at the Roki Tunnel is a formal border crossing. Very often the security officers call foreign visitors leaving South Ossetia for a "quick" interrogation. When asked them why they do this interrogation on these particular borders and not, for example, Abkhazia or Mongolia, they explain that these are sensitive borders and they have to do this frequently. Nevertheless, the young officers, when finished doing their duty, may be very friendly. The Russians and South Ossetians pass through the checkpoint without any delay.