Ossetia älänˈyä [key], Ossetian Iryston, region of the central Caucasus, divided between the Republic of Georgia and the Russian Federation. On the northern slope is North Ossetia-Alania (1990 est. pop. 641,000), 3,100 sq mi (8,029 sq km), a constituent republic of Russia; Vladikavkaz (formerly Ordzhonikidze) is the capital. This region extends north beyond the Terek River. On the southern slope is South Ossetia (2009 est. pop. 63,000), 1,500 sq mi (3,885 sq km), an autonomous region of Georgia that has had de facto independence since the 1990s; Tskhinvali is its capital. The region extends southward almost to the Kura River.

Both sections of Ossetia have valleys that produce fruit, wine, grain, and cotton. Lumbering and livestock raising are important in the mountains. North Ossetia-Alania has lead, silver, zinc, and boron deposits and nonferrous metallurgical, oil-extracting, and food-processing industries. Ossetian artwork includes wood, stone, and silver carving.

The Ossetians, an Iranian-speaking people, are mainly Sunni Muslims in the north and Eastern Orthodox Christians in the south, where Georgian culture prevails. They are descended from the medieval Alans (see Sarmatia). During the 17th cent. the Northern Ossetians were subject to Karbada princelings. From the 18th cent. they came under strong Russian influence, and between 1801 and 1806 all of Ossetian territory was annexed to Russia.

In Mar., 1918, the entire area was declared an autonomous soviet republic, and in Jan., 1920, was renamed the Mountain Autonomous Republic. In 1922, South Ossetia was made part of Georgia; in 1924 North Ossetia-Alania (then called North Ossetia) became an autonomous region in the RSFSR. In 1936, North Ossetia was made an autonomous republic. North Ossetia-Alania was a signatory to the Mar. 31, 1992, treaty that created the Russian Federation (see Russia).

The republic has not been immune to the turmoil in neighboring regions. In 1992, after several days of fighting, tens of thousands of Ingush inhabitants of North Ossetia-Alania's Prigorodny region, once part of the Checheno-Ingush ASSR and to be reincorporated into it under a 1991 Soviet law, fled or were expelled to the newly established republic of Ingushetia. The city of Beslan was the scene in 2004 of a Chechen-Ingush terrorist seizure of a middle school; the siege ended violently, with the death of more than 300 hostages. North Ossetians have been strong supporters of the nationalists in South Ossetia, and the leaders of both regions have called for their unification as a republic in the Russian Federation.

In 1990 South Ossetia, having previously unilaterally declared itself an independent republic within the Soviet Union in response to increasing Georgian nationalism, was stripped of its autonomous region status by an act of the Georgian Supreme Soviet. Following Georgia's independence from the Soviet Union, Ossetian nationalists in South Ossetia demanded either independence from Georgia or incorporation into North Ossetia-Alania and Russia, and in late 1991 fighting broke out between Georgian and Ossetian forces. In Apr., 1992, the South Ossetian Autonomous Region was reestablished in Georgia. Fighting in the region between Georgian and Ossetian forces was ended by a truce in July, which left much of South Ossetia under the control of the Ossetians. Further accords were signed in 1996, but the political situation remained unresolved, with South Ossetia dependent on Russia for support.

Tensions increased in 2004 as Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili sought to reassert Georgian supremacy over the nation's independence-minded autonomous republics and regions, and two years later South Ossetians voted overwhelmingly for independence in a referendum that was not generally recognized internationally. Escalating tensions in Aug., 2008, led to a Georgian invasion of the region; Russian forces then entered South Ossetia, routed the Georgians, and for a time occupied some neighboring areas of Georgia. Both sides were accused of human-rights violations during the conflict, and South Ossetian militias also were accused of ethnic cleansing against ethnic Georgian inhabitants of the region following the cease-fire. The region, especially the capital, suffered significant destruction during the fighting. Russia subsequently recognized South Ossetia as independent, and a few other nations have since done so. In 2015 the region and Russian signed a treaty integrating South Ossetia's military and economy with Russia's.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2024, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

See more Encyclopedia articles on: CIS and Baltic Physical Geography