Sunday, December 30, 2018

All About South Ossetia's 2017 Name Change

South Ossetia (purple) and Abkhazia (green) within the claimed borders of Georgia. Click to enlarge. Map by ChrisO based on UN map of Georgia (public domain; source).

Adding "State of Alania"

At PolGeoNow we promise to inform our readers any time one of the world's countries changes its name, even if it's just a modification to the country's official long name, or a switch in the name's preferred English translation.

But there was one name change we missed out on reporting last year - depending on what you consider a "country".

In April 2017, people in the disputed Republic of South Ossetia voted to change the self-declared country's full name to "The Republic of South Ossetia – the State of Alania". The name change referendum reportedly passed with about 80% of valid votes in favor, though many countries strongly condemned the whole process, seeing it as part of an ongoing Russia-led attempt to steal the region away from Georgia (the country, not the US state).

Is South Ossetia a Country?

The status of the so-called Republic of Ossetia is hotly disputed. According to the UN and most of its member countries, South Ossetia isn't officially a country at all. The region is claimed by Georgia, but it declared independence during the breakup of the Soviet Union, and has largely been governed separately from Georgia ever since a 1992 ceasefire.

Georgia reoccupied the territory in 2008 amid new border fighting, but was pushed back out by a major military intervention from neighboring Russia. South Ossetia and its sister breakaway, the Republic of Abkhazia, are now partially integrated with the Russian economy and military structure, leading some observers to call them puppet states of Russia. But both consider themselves independent countries, and are still governed somewhat independently.

Map of what countries recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent from Georgia in December 2018. Includes Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Nauru, new recognizer Syria, disputed or withdrawn recognitions from Tuvalu and Vanuatu, and unrecognized countries Transistria, Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh), and Western Sahara whose self-proclaimed governments also recognize the so-called Georgian breakaways.(Colorblind accessible)
Countries that recognize South Ossetia as independent (click for full-size).
That might not always be the case - it's said that a large majority of South Ossetians favor eventual unification with Russia. That could also mean merging with the ethnically similar Republic of North Ossetia-Alania, which is already a federal division of Russia.

South Ossetian governments have even promised to hold a referendum on joining Russia (like hastily-installed pro-Russian authorities in Crimea did in 2014), but so far they haven't followed through with it.

The only UN member countries that formally recognize South Ossetia as independent are Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Nauru, and Syria - all since the 2008 war. Tuvalu and Vanuatu also both endorsed South Ossetian independence at one point, but have since withdrawn their recognitions. The rest of the world's national governments consider South Ossetia to be part of Georgia.

Learn More: Which Countries Recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia as Independent?

Why Add "the State of Alania"?

As mentioned above, South Ossetia's tweak to its official name mirrors the name of its twin region across the border in Russia - the Republic of North Ossetia-Alania. This is no coincidence. The move was intended to highlight the South Ossetian people's connection - and possible desire for unification - with neighboring North Ossetia.

So where does "Alania" come from? Like many of the world's countries, South Ossetia seeks patriotic pride and historical credibility in its ties to an ancient people who once lived in the region. In this case, those people are the Alans, a prominent nomadic group well-known from the history of Europe and Central Asia. And there really is some evidence that the Ossetian people and their language descend from the Alans, or at least from one subgroup of them.

Related: Are modern Macedonians descended from the people of ancient Macedonia?

South Ossetia or Alania: Both Names Accepted

The constitutional amendment passed in the April 2017 referendum actually just adds "the State of Alania" to one clause at the beginning. The rest of the constitution still calls the country "Republic of South Ossetia", and the two names are explicitly declared to be interchangeable. The exact change (translated from Russian) was:

Original Version
The Republic of South Ossetia is a sovereign democratic legal state created as a result of the self-determination of the people of South Ossetia. (source)

Amended Version
The Republic of South Ossetia – the State of Alania is a sovereign democratic legal state created as a result of the self-determination of the people of South Ossetia. Names The Republic of South Ossetia and the State of Alania are equivalent. (source)

"The Republic of South Ossetia – the State of Alania" is the usual English translation of the full name, but we weren't able to find any official English documents confirming this. The dash separating the two names is also used in the Russian version.

One might even interpret the constitution to be saying that these are just two alternative names, and not intended to be actually used together, but the amendment is usually still talked about as a "name change" or "renaming" in the media, including in official releases from the South Ossetian government.

Flag of the Republic of South Ossetia - State of Alania Short Name:  
• South Ossetia (English)
• Xussar Iryston (Ossetian)
• Yuzhnaya Osetiya (Russian)
Full Declared Name:
• Republic of South Ossetia the State of Alania (English)
• Respublik√¶ Xussar Iryston – Paddzaxad Allonston (Ossetian)
Respublika Yuzhnaya Osetiya Gosudarstvo Alaniya (Russian)
Capital: Tskhinvali
Claimed by: Georgia
Name According to Georgia:
• Tskhinvali region (English)
• Tskhinvalis regioni (Georgian)

When Did the Change Go Into Effect?

When a fully-recognized country, like the Czech Republic or Swaziland, changes its name, it's simple to confirm that the change has gone into effect: It soon gets registered in UN databases and the ISO standard list of country codes and names. But for a mostly-unrecognized breakaway region like South Ossetia, there's no such international registry.

Still, in this case there's no doubt that the change has taken effect according to the laws of the self-proclaimed country itself. The president's official website shows the amended version of the South Ossetian constitution, and a government document dated April 12, 2017 (two days after the vote) certifies the results of the referendum, without mention of any delays before it would go into effect.

On the other hand, the South Ossetian government seems to be treating the change as purely symbolic, and sticking to "South Ossetia" or "Republic of South Ossetia" in its online publications and official websites.

PolGeoNow informs you every time a country gets renamed! To see the full list, view all country name change articles.

Graphic of the flag of the South Ossetian flag is in the public domain (source).