A concert by the Rustavi state academic Georgian folk song and dance ensemble in Vladikavkaz, the capital of North Ossetia, unexpectedly spiraled into a scandal. When news of Rustavi’s arrival in Vladikavkaz first emerged, South Ossetian activists started a campaign against the Georgian dance group’s concert. South Ossetians appealed to the North Ossetians in the name of ethnic solidarity, but found little support (Rosbalt, March 28). The day of the concert, March 25, public protests were held near the concert hall in Vladikavkaz, but the concert went ahead (Region15.ru, March 25).
The Georgian breakaway territory of South Ossetia has had rocky relations with the Georgian authorities since the late 1980s. After Georgia declared its intention of independent statehood, some South Ossetian activists called for the republic to secede from Georgia and stay with Russia, where their ethnic kin resided. Violence soon ensued, but Moscow brokered a peace agreement between South Ossetia’s self-proclaimed government and Georgia in 1992. In August 2008, Russia went to war with Georgia after what Moscow claimed was a Georgian attack on Russian peacekeepers in the region. Russia quickly followed up with the formal recognition of South Ossetia as a sovereign country, which Georgia and its Western allies protested.
The North Ossetians, the South Ossetians’ ethnic kin, live on the Russian side of the Russian-Georgian border, in the North Caucasus. Relations between the two groups have been complicated in recent decades. Many North Ossetians were upset about the influx of Ossetian refugees from Georgia in the 1990s. South Ossetians and North Ossetians speak different dialects of the Ossetian language, and South Ossetians are predominantly Orthodox Christian, while a significant minority of North Ossetians is Muslim. The tensions between the two groups turned public over the Georgian dance ensemble’s concert in Vladikavkaz.
South Ossetian activists accused the North Ossetians of “betrayal,” while the North Ossetians replied that “art should be outside politics.” Some South Ossetians responded that culture is an element of war and that the Georgians were waging war against the Ossetians. Others said that “extermination of the Ossetian people in the south and the concerts in the north are unacceptable.” Deputies in South Ossetia’s parliament even called on the North Ossetian government to cancel the concert. North Ossetian officials, however, said that they did not invite the Georgian ensemble and that it was a purely commercial event they had no jurisdiction over (Sputnik-ossetia.ru, March 17).
The tensions ran so high that both the North Ossetian and South Ossetian governments had to respond. The deputy speaker of the North Ossetian parliament, Stanislav Kesaev, called on the activists to stop their “political games and fueling scandals around Georgian ensembles’ concerts.” The South Ossetian president, Leonid Tibilov, also intervened, calling on the South Ossetian activists to calm down and on the North Ossetian activists to understand the pain of the South Ossetians (Rosbalt, March 28).
Georgian culture has always been widely represented in neighboring North Ossetia due to the cultural and geographic proximity between the two. A large Georgian diaspora resides in North Ossetia. At the moment, however, many South Ossetians appear to be concerned that a potential Russian-Georgian rapprochement could undermine Russian support for South Ossetia. Some of the South Ossetians who protested in front of the former Russian Embassy in Tbilisi accused the Rustavi ensemble of supporting Ukraine (Onkavkaz.com, March 29).
In addition, the South Ossetians and North Ossetians have come to realize that they may have quite different interests in connection with Georgia. While the South Ossetians have been in conflict with Georgia for the past two decades, the North Ossetians have often engaged in mutually beneficial trans-border trade and transit. The Georgian Military Highway crosses the Caucasus Mountain Ridge in the area of Stepantsminda (a.k.a. Kazbegi) and Upper Lars. Much of the traffic to landlocked Armenia goes via that highway, which brings benefits to both North Ossetia and Georgia. The potential for trans-border trade is also quite high, and businesses on both sides of the Georgian-Russian border probably realize that as well.
The tensions between North Ossetia and South Ossetia also have an internal logic, given that both territories are heavily dependent on Russian financial aid. The North Ossetian government realizes that now it “shares” the financial benefits Moscow provides to the South Ossetian government, which means that, overall, North Ossetians receive slightly less help from Moscow. This also explains why North Ossetians are so skeptical about the South Ossetian campaign to join Russia. Meanwhile, Moscow has announced that it will reinvigorate its investment in South Ossetia while financing for North Ossetia remains at the previous level. At a meeting with the South Ossetian leader, Leonid Tibilov, President Vladimir Putin announced more money was headed toward the Georgian breakaway territory. Russia’s Gazprom promised to supply natural gas to 200 towns and villages in South Ossetia (Ekho Kavkaza, April 3). Against the backdrop of increasing investment in South Ossetia, North Ossetia’s economy remains in flux and continues to deteriorate. The acting governor of North Ossetia, Vyacheslav Bitarov, openly stated that there was no money in the republican budget, and he did not know how to escape the dire economic situation (Region15.ru, March 21).
Despite the regular proclamations of “brotherhood” and “solidarity,” the material interests of South Ossetia and North Ossetia often set them apart. The scandal around the Georgian dance group’s concert was the latest manifestation of these differences.