[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2008/images/08/08/art.russian.soldiers.jpg caption="Russian peacekeepers guard their outpost at South Ossetian border in an unknown location in Georgia, Thursday."]
Jill Dougherty | Bio
U.S. Affairs Correspondent
If you’ve never heard of South Ossetia it’s understandable.
This tiny, mountainous region in the Republic of Georgia, population only 70,000, considers itself independent from Georgia and lives that way, with its own secessionist government. Most of its citizens, ethnic Ossetians, want to be reunited with Ossetians in Russia; many of them even have Russian passports and use Russian money.
The South Ossetians have held two referendums on independence but no country in the world has recognized their vote.
Now, South Ossetia is engulfed in fighting, refugees are fleeing north to Russia and the international community is scrambling to avert a wider conflict. Why such concern?
One reason is the potential for the fighting to spin out of control. South Ossetia is no stranger to violence. After the Soviet Union broke apart in 1991, South Ossetia was hit with heavy fighting between Ossetians and Georgians. In 1992 Russian, Ossetian and Georgian peacekeepers were brought in to quell tensions. The entire Caucasus mountain region in which the region is located is a patchwork quilt of ethnic groups and ethnic tensions. One example is neighboring Chechnya.
Georgia also strategically sits astride an oil pipeline route from the Caspian Sea to the West.
Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili has made Georgian unification a centerpiece of his domestic policy and his foreign policy goals, along with integration with the West and joining NATO. All of those goals worry Russia which has grave concern about NATO’s encroaching on its southern flank.
Both sides, Georgia and Russia, have extremists who are eager to provoke the other side. Some in Russia openly speak of annexing South Ossetia and carrying out “regime change” against the Georgian president. Some in Georgia have no compunction about tempting Russia to intervene in order to bring down the West’s condemnation on Moscow and curry the West’s support for Georgia.
President Saakashvili, who went down in history as the leader of the 2003 “Rose Revolution,” is urging President Bush to “stand up for freedom” and support Georgia’s cause. Russian president Dmitri Medvedev claims Moscow is justified in using force, and says he has no choice but to intervene when Russian peacekeepers and Russian citizens are under attack.
Ultimately, what happens in tiny South Ossetia has big implications for the United States. More than any other country, the U.S. has strong influence on Georgia. President Saakashvili, for example, contributed 2,000 peacekeepers to Iraq. Now, Georgia says its must bring them home as its own country mobilizes for war.
The U.S. faces a serious challenge: Can Washington help pull both sides back from the brink of war, support its ally Georgia, without increasing tensions with Russia?
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