NBC News
updated 8/8/2008 1:06:40 PM ET 2008-08-08T17:06:40

Georgia's breakaway South Ossetia region is experiencing the worst outbreak of hostilities since it won de facto independence in a war that ended in 1992.

Yonatan Pomrenze, NBC News' Moscow producer, explains the issues behind the outbreak of violence in the former Soviet state and what the underlying issues are.

Why does South Ossetia want to break away from Georgia? What is its current political status?

South Ossetia has historically enjoyed degrees of autonomy even within Imperial and Soviet Russia, and has attempted to gain independence a number of times in the past. It is a de facto independent republic within Georgia. While not officially recognized as an independent state by any other country or international body, South Ossetia has repeatedly stated it would settle for nothing less than outright independence from Georgia.

Many South Ossetians feel they are unnaturally separated from the Ossetians across the border in the Russian republic of North Ossetia and would like to see independence as a way to unite with Russia.

What are Russia’s ties to the separatists?

Russia has a contingent of peacekeepers in the disputed areas of Georgia. Georgia claims that the peacekeepers actually favor the separatist governments. As Georgia has moved closer to the West, seeking membership in NATO, Russia has countered with a number of moves which have tightened the ties between Russia and South Ossetia/Abkhazia.

Where does the international community stand on the issue?

No country or organization (OSCE, U.N., NATO, SCO) has recognized the sovereignty of South Ossetia. But we are seeing Russia and Georgia try to put forward two different narratives to the international community. Georgia, which is angling for eventual NATO membership, would like to paint this as internal Georgian affair that Russia is interfering in. Russia, on the other hand, claims it is protecting its own legally-stationed peacekeepers and its fellow citizens.

What are the risks of a wider regional conflict?

The risks here are great. With casualties to Russia’s peacekeeping force and attacks on Georgian territory beyond the conflict zone, we are already seeing the potential for this to spin into a larger, Russian-Georgian conflict. In addition, many of Russia’s unstable Caucus regions — Chechnya, Ingushetia, Dagestan — are nearby and could see a spillover of violence into their regional conflicts.

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