South Ossetia is a country that seceded from — but is still claimed by — Georgia. Its mountainous, wild isolation gives South Ossetia both reasons to visit and reasons to think twice about it. There was much 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.
- — the capital and the largest town in the region, home to the government of South Ossetia
- (Russian & Ossetian)/ Akhalgori (Georgian) — a small town that was under Georgian control until 2008, home to the Lomisi Brewery
- — 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 region of Russia's North Caucasus. The only UN members that recognize the Republic of South Ossetia are Russia, Nauru, Venezuela and Nicaragua.
A person of Ossetia (oh-SEH-tee-ah) is an Ossete (oh-SEET). The ethnicity and the language are Ossetian (oh-SEH-tee-ahn). The Ossetes are different from the Georgians and belong the ancient nation of Alans. They are the same people as in North Ossetia in Russia on the other side of Caucasus mountain.
Under the Soviet Union, South Ossetia was an autonomous region of its Georgian republic. 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 merge with their North Ossetian neighbours in Russia. The Georgian government overruled this and tried to establish full Georgian control over South Ossetia. Alarmed Ossetes pressed for recognition of their autonomy, some sought full secession from Georgia and a union with Russia. The first full-scale war between Ossetian separatists and the Georgian national government started in early 1991 and lasted until 1992.
After that war, South Ossetia was effectively independent; the Georgian government had little control over the highly autonomous region. Georgia's Rose Revolution of 2003 established a government keen to regain the lost control over South Ossetia and Abkhazia, a region which had a similar separatist post-Soviet history.
Georgia's heavy handed and clumsy handling of the situation culminated in 2008 when it shelled South Ossetia's capital Tskhinvali as part of a military campaign to assert its authority. This back-fired grandly when the Russian army poured through the Roki Tunnel and overran much of Georgia proper. A ceasefire was forced on the Georgians and the Russians withdrew to the boundaries of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, leaving them well beyond Georgian control.
Since "liberating" the region, the Russian government has tried to merge it with Russia, but has come up with no success due to impediments from both Georgia and from the South Ossetians themselves.
PoliticsWhile the separatist conflict between the Ossetes and the Georgian central government has cooled to a much lower level than during the 2008 war and despite a heavy Russian "peace-keeping" military presence, security and government control are both weak. The Ossetians are largely grateful for Russia's military intervention against Georgia. Many South Ossetes fled during the 2008 war: the 2007 population was 70,000, in 2012 it was 55,000.
The people of South Ossetia can speak Ossetian, Russian and Georgian. However most people will refuse to talk in Georgian and may act hostile towards you if you do, due to the conflict between South Ossetia and Georgia that has been ongoing since the early 1990s and experienced a highly publicized war in 2008. Likewise, bitterness, fear and hatred against Georgians remain high. If you can't speak Ossetian, Russian is what you should stick to.
English is basically non-existent.
It is not possible to visit South Ossetia from Georgia. The road between the Ergneti and Tskhinvali is heavily guarded on the Georgian side. When asked, the soldiers say that there is no road and that the only way to go to Tskhinvali is via Vladikavkaz in Russia. A traveler from Spain reportedly managed to bribe his way into South Ossetia in 2013, but the situation has changed since then and it seems like it is not possible anymore (at least not at Ergneti).
However, it is possible to get very close to the demarcation line and to view Tskhinvali a few kilometers 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 Russia, head to Vladikavkaz in North Ossetia (there are trains and planes from Moscow). Then 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 permitsIf travelling from Russia, the South Ossetian embassy (9 Kurcovoi Pereylok, +7 (495) 644-27-57) in Moscow should be able to arrange your documents. A late 2012 agreement promised to establish a South Ossetian Consular Agency in Vladikavkaz, until the consulate is functioning representatives of South Ossetia are based in that city at the MFA, 38 Prospekt Mira.
ToursVarious companies run tours to the region. They offer a good advantage of sorting out all your paperwork, bribes 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).
Abchasien Reisen - Abkhazia specialists that also run week long trips to South Ossetia. From €1,390 per person per week (includes flights from Europe to Vladikavkaz).
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 located in the Caucasus mountains and most of the country is located over 1,000m above sea level.
The Russian ruble (RUB or ₽) is the commonly used currency in South Ossetia.
Ossetian food is delicious, a Caucasian cuisine similar to but significantly different from Georgian cuisine. Be sure to feast on Ossetian pie, a dish similar to khachapuri, but with meat and mushrooms instead of cheese.
South Ossetia is not any more dangerous but is not yet easy to visit due the absence of standardized formalities. If you can get an " approval to visit" you can go without hassle.
You must have at least double entry visa to Russia. There is no way out from Georgia and you have to re-enter Russia.
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 is 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 damaged by years of warfare. 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 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.