South Ossetia (Ossetian: Xussar Iryston; officially The Republic of South Ossetia-State of Alania) is a partially recognized state in the south-central Caucasus. Most countries consider it to be legally a part of Georgia, but in reality it has been functionally independent since 1991. At present South Ossetia is recognized by Russia, Syria, Nauru, Venezuela and Nicaragua.
South Ossetia is very poorly known or understood in the West, where media portrayals are strongly biased in favour of the Georgian narrative of "Ossetian separatism" and "Russian expansionism." There is almost no mention of the fact that Ossetians were subjected to three explicitly genocidal campaigns by the Georgians over the past one hundred years: in 1918-20, in 1989-92, and again in 2008. As a result of these experiences, it is inconceivable to most Ossetians that they could ever accept to be a part of Georgia.
South Ossetia was an autonomous region of the Georgian SSR under the Soviet Union. In 1989, amid rising nationalist sentiment throughout the Soviet Union, when Georgian nationalist Zviad Gamsakhurdia's independence movement began to call for the expulsion of Ossetes, the government of the South Ossetian Autonomous Region declared itself an Autonomous Republic within the USSR separate from the Georgian SSR. Georgians responded by attacking Ossetes in an attempt to drive them from the region, eventually resulting in a full-scale war between Ossetes and the Georgians. The conflict lasted for two years until a Russian-brokered ceasefire in 1992.
In August 2008 Georgia launched a military offensive into South Ossetia in order to regain Georgian control. After five days the Russian army intervened to stop the conflict. Russia formally recognized South Ossetia as an independent state, and since that time the Russian army has defended the border against further Georgian attacks. Contrary to portrayals in the Western media of Russia as an "occupying force," South Ossetians see Russia as guaranteeing their security against a hostile neighbour, similar to the US presence in South Korea.
South Ossetia is rich in historical monuments, but most have not been adequately cataloged or studied. Locals may be able to suggest interesting places to visit. The country's main attraction, however, is its spectacular nature.
South Ossetia's street crime rate is low to non-existent; however, it is wise to steer clear of drunks and drug addicts.
Google Maps are almost useless in South Ossetia since they are outdated and use Georgian place names which are nowhere visible in South Ossetia. Yandex maps are more accurate and reliable. Note also that Apple shares Google's partisan pro-Georgiian bias, so that your iPhone will show Tbilisi time which is one hour ahead of what is used in South Ossetia, and your photos will be labelled as having been shot in Tbilisi. Booking.com will also suggest hotels for you in nearby Georgian towns that are inaccessible from South Ossetia.
The Ossetian language (an Iranian dialect distantly related to Persian) is more widely spoken in South Ossetia than in the North, but Russian is still used for most official purposes. The older generation can generally speak Georgian but will not willingly do so.
Holders of Russian passports may enter South Ossetia using their internal passport. If you are not a Russian citizen then you must obtain permission from the South Ossetian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Currently (Feb 2020) you must have an invitation from someone in South Ossetia. Contact the consular section of the South Ossetian Foreign Ministry by e-mail: [email protected] You must be in possession of a multiple entry visa, since you will formally be leaving Russia when you enter South Ossetia.
South Ossetia is accessible only by road from Russia via the Ruk tunnel. Small buses frequently leave from the bus station in Vladikavkaz to the capital Tskhinval. Private or shared taxis leave as soon as all four seats are fully booked. The going rate (Feb 2020) for the 3 hour trip is 500 rubles per person; thus you can rent an entire taxi for 2,000 rubles.
The distance from Vladikavkaz to Tskhinval is 164km and travel time is less than three hours, but the passport control on the Russian side can take time if you do not appear in the computer as having visited South Ossetia before. Russia will not stamp your passport since evidence of having visited South Ossetia will prevent you from being admitted into Georgia in the future. After passing through two long tunnels under the mountains you will arrive at the South Ossetian border post. If you have received permission to visit then your name will be in the computer and you will be given an entry slip which you must return when leaving the country. Again, they will not stamp your passport. The trip from the South Ossetian border post to the capital of Tshkinval is 52km and takes about half an hour.
The former Railway station is now a bus station. There are bus routes to most cities in South Ossetia (and Vladikavkaz) but frequency varies. It is preferable to negotiate with the taxi drivers who wait outside, since these are inexpensive.
Tskhinval A quiet town of about 30,000 with some nice parks including a pleasant main square and a new riverfront walk on the other side of the parliament building to the east. The South Ossetia National Museum on Kosta Khetagurov ulitsa north of the parliament building is well worth a visit. Other sites of interest include the 18th century Church of the Holy Virgin in the former Armenian quarter, and a ruined synagogue in what used to be the Jewish quarter just to the south. There is a good view of the city from a small chapel which can be accessed on foot by climbing the path at the end of 13 Kommunarov ulitsa east of the riverside park. Leaving the city on the opposite, western side you can see the gruesome monument known as the "Museum of Burnt Souls," commemorating a group of civilians who were burnt to death in their cars by Georgian militia while trying to flee the violence in 2008.
Leningor (Akhalgori in Georgian) A town to the east of Tskhinval (90 minutes by car), where there is still a small Georgina population. For this reason it has the only functioning border crossing with Georgia, but this is open only to locals. The town has two old fortresses formerly owned by the local Georgian nobility (one is now a restaurant), a church, and a couple of old mansions with wooden balconies, one of which is now an art museum. With a local guide you can visit such sites as Aramaz, an impressive 9th-century church and monastery complex, and Usanet dzuar, an important popular mountaintop shrine, both of which are about 10km west on the road to Tskhinval.
Dhzer Site of an important mountaintop shrine to the Ossetian patron deity Uastrydzhi (St. George), located in the central part of the country. The infant Joseph Dzhugashvili (known later in life as Stalin, who is still an Ossetian national hero) was brought here by his grateful middle-aged father who had despaired of having children.
Day 1 Drive in the morning from Vladikavkaz to Tskhinvali stopping on the way to enjoy various scenic spots. Have lunch at Vicenzo, a good modern restaurant on the main square, then do a walking tour taking in the former Armenian and Jewish quarters. Day 2. Day tour to Leningor with side trips to the valleys . Visit the fortresses, the museum, and if able to find a guide, hike up to the Usanet shrine and/or the Aramaz monastery complex west of town. Return to Tskhinvali for overnight. Day 3. Day tour to Kvaisa to explore the western mountains of South Ossetia. Return to Tskhinvali for overnight. Day 4. The Dzher shrine can be visited as part of your return trip to Vladikavkaz, if you have reserved a taxi for yourslf and if the driver agrees to take you. Otherwise organize transport to do it as a day trip from Tskhinval.
Hiking and horseback riding in the mountains.
There are a number of other restaurants serving local cuisine. No Ossetian meal is complete without traditional pies (pirogi) served in a stack of three; they may include, cheese, potatoes, cabbage, beets or meat.
South Ossetia has the same excellent wines as Georgia, but exclusively homemade, even in restaurants. In Tskhinval also try Rong, a sweet liqueur similar to Amaretto.
In Leningor and other areas you may attract the attention of the police while taking photographs. Use common sense and avoid photographing government or other sensitive areas.
The Russian Internal Security Service (FSB) at the border crossing to Russia has been ordered to interrogate foreigners in a separate room following passport control. Don't panic and merely answer their questions.
Due to supplies having to come from Russia there are sometimes shortages of medicine. Heating, electricity, plumbing are basically commodities owing to years of failing infrastructure damaged by years of warfare. Likewise, the health care system is dilapidated - be sure to bring the necessary medical equipment and only buy bottled water.
Ossetians tend to be culturally conservative, even if a bit more liberal in the South. Social events are generally gender segregated and public displays of affection are frowned upon. Male gatherings tend to involve a lot of drinking, so if you are invited to one be prepared, although it is acceptable to say that you are a non-drinker. Such gatherings, called kuyvd, date back to Scythian times and often the drinking is done out of horns ("so that you cannot put it down until it is empty"). These gatherings consist of an endless procession of toasts, beginning with toasts to the supreme deity, then to Uastyrdzhi, then to the host, then parents, children, friends, etc. It can go on for hours.