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Prometheus unchained: elections in South Ossetia

Frederick Lauritzen

13th May 2022


Sitting comfortably in an armchair in front of a roaring fire in gloomy weather and reading about the recent Ossetian elections and the victory of Alan Glagoyev (Nykhaz party) on the 10th May 2022, own’s mind would be forgiven if it wandered in the realm of comparative mythology and Indo-European linguistics. Indeed, the name of George Dumézil (1898-1986) could emerge together with his notion of an original European tripartite society made of king, priest, and soldier. The French scholar invented structuralist analysis by comparing Greek, Scandinavian and Ossetian mythology.

However, for the local inhabitants, things are cruder and more concrete. Anatoly Bibilov (United Ossetia party), has lost his re-election bid, as president of the Republic of South Ossetia, a state not recognized by any other country. One of the reasons, is Ukraine. He sent his army to fight in the ‘special operation’ and some soldiers have come back complaining that the Russian army is in disastrous shape, as leaked on an opposition media outlet Mediazona (3rd May 2022).  Bibilov campaigned for annexation to Russia, in case of success at the polls. This reveals a deep-seated problem in Russian politics. The Ossetian language is made of two main dialects: Iron and Digor. They are spoken only in north Ossetia whose capital is Vladikavkaz, a Potëmkin village founded in 1784, and is part of the Russian Federation. Only Iron is spoken in South Ossetia a breakaway part of Georgia, under an alleged independence since 1991. Before that date it formed an Autonomous Oblast within the Soviet Union. They are two different cultures and two different languages. Superficially they are similar and here lies the problem. Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008) also pointed out his shock when he discovered the animosity felt by the Ukrainians against Russia, which he described in the Archipelago Gulag (Book 5 chapter 2). He clearly did not expect that a brotherly Slavic culture could be so hostile. Hostility is sometimes the result of claims to the same area, language, or culture. Distance creates laziness and numbness. The special operation, or war, in Ukraine is precisely such a claim by two parties to the same culture and area. However, South Ossetia is not distant, they speak an Indo-European language, the only Iranian people not to convert to Islam. The nearest and tallest mountain maybe where Prometheus was chained (Kazbeg) and thus famous from Greek mythology and even tragedy (Aeschylus).

The new president will be sworn in on the 24th May 2022. He studied at the University of Tskhinval in South Ossetia. The university is notable for its partnerships with the Universities of Lugansk and Donetsk in the Donbass region. Ossetia reveals the continued issue of ethnic groups and nationalities which had been the subject of Stalin’s book ‘Marxism and the national question’ of 1913. Putin advocated a multi-ethnic state in his 9th May speech in Red Square this year, the same claim made by Milošević in his ‘Gazimestan’ speech in Kosovo on 28th June 1989. Both statements originate from bureaucratic language typical of communist states. Times have changed. Yugoslavia taught us, by its demise, that attention must be sharp when discussing ethnic minorities. Indeed, Stalin divided North and South Ossetia in 1924, fearing the flaring of ethnic tensions within Georgia or Russia. Internal dynamics can evolve and escape the notice of the so called ‘great powers’ which then watch powerlessly as new situations unfold, incapable of reading new data, with new eyes. The election in South Ossetia has revealed local dynamics which are different from North Ossetia and the Russian Federation. South Ossetia may be a thermometer of a wider situation and sentiment and brings to the fore the issue of minorities and nations within Russia.

While thinking of these distant lands in the armchair, we may be listening to classical music, such as conducted by the most famous Osset, Valery Gergiev, conductor of the Mariynski Theatre orchestra of Saint Petersburg. He not only conducted a victory concert in Palmyra in Syria on 5th May 2014, but more relevantly he led his orchestra in playing the Leningrad Symphony in Tskhinval on 21st August 2008 after the short Ossetian-Georgian war. Let’s not let the music wash over us with numb and comfortable disinterest, the Caucasus may yet teach us more about areas closer to our current attention.

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