South Ossetia broke away from Georgia during a 1991-92 civil war, following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The pro-Russian province declared its independence, which has not been recognized by any other country.
Instead, the international community has supported Georgia’s territorial integrity. The Russian government has also expressed support for Georgia, but has aided the breakaway province with free education and medical care as well as other social issues.
That relationship only deepened when NATO said in April 2008 that Georgia would be allowed to join at some point — angering Russia which opposes eastward expansion of the alliance. Russia strengthened its ties with South Ossetia and another Georgian province seeking its independence, Abkhazia.
An unease cease-fire collapses in August when clashes erupted between Georgian forces seeking to take back control of the rebel region and separatist rebels. Both sides exchanged heavy machine gun fire and mortars in early August 2008 prompting Russia, which maintains a force of armed peacekeepers in the region, to respond with aircraft attacks and tanks.
“This was a very blunt Russian aggression. … We are right now suffering because we want to be free and we want to be a multi-ethnic democracy,” Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili told CNN.
According to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, however, “Under the Constitution and the federal law … I must protect the life and dignity of Russian civilians wherever they are.”
The majority of South Ossetia’s estimated 70,000 people have Russian passports.
The Ossetians are a distinct ethnic group originally from the Russian plains, according to a BBC profile. South Ossetians are trying to join their ethnic counterparts in North Ossetia, an autonomous republic within the Russian Federation, the profile says.
Sporadic fighting between separatists in the area and the Georgian military has killed dozens over the past few years.
About 500 peacekeepers from Russia, Georgia and North Ossetia have been monitoring a 1992 truce in the region, according to Reuters. Georgia accuses the Russian peacekeepers of supporting the separatists, a charge that Russia denies.
A similar situation continues to boil in northwestern Georgia where Abkhazia declared its independence in 1999 to similar results.
In 1992, efforts of the Abkhaz people to secede from Georgia and strengthen ties with Russia were squelched when the Georgian army sent in troops. Georgian forces were expelled the following year after several thousand people were killed.
The continued turmoil has left the once prime holiday destination for the Soviet elite an isolated and economically depressed region, according to the BBC.