Mountainous South Ossetia, which is in Georgia, is separated from North Ossetia, which is in Russia, by the border between the two countries running high in the Caucasus. Much of the region lies more than 1000 metres above sea level.
Long a source of tension in the region, South Ossetia was the focus of a full-blown war between Russia and Georgia in 2008. In the aftermath, it declared independence from Georgia and was recognised by Russia and Nicaragua.
South Ossetia is inhabited mostly by ethnic Ossetians who speak a language remotely related to Farsi. Georgians account for less than one-third of the population.
Tbilisi is adamant that there can be no compromise over South Ossetia being part of Georgia. It firmly resists Ossetian separatism, shunning the use of the name South Ossetia which it sees as implying political bonds with North Ossetia, and therefore as a threat to Georgia's territorial integrity.
As far as Georgia is concerned, the use of the word "north" in the title North Ossetia is misleading. In Tbilisi's eyes, the region of Russia which bears that name is the only Ossetia. It prefers to call South Ossetia, which is part of the Georgian province of Shida Kartli, by the ancient name of Samachablo or, more recently, Tskhinvali region.
In August 2008, Georgia's efforts to regain control of the area seem to have suffered a crippling blow when Russia - a staunch ally of South Ossetia's separatists - defeated a Georgian incursion into South Ossetia in a bloody five-day conflict. Russia subsequently became the first country to recognise the self-declared republic, to the dismay of Tbilisi and the West.
The Ossetians are believed to be descended from tribes which migrated into the area from Asia many hundreds of years ago and settled in what is now North Ossetia.
Tskhinvali, the capital of breakaway South Ossetia
As the Russian empire expanded into the area in the 18th and 19th centuries, the Ossetians did not join other peoples of the North Caucasus in putting up fierce resistance. Some fought alongside the Russians against neighbours who had long been rivals, while others made the difficult journey south across the mountains to escape.
By tradition, the Ossetians have had good relations with Russians and were regarded as loyal citizens, first of the Russian empire and later of the Soviet Union. They sided with the Kremlin when Bolshevik forces occupied Georgia in the early 1920s and, as part of the carve-up which followed, the South Ossetian Autonomous Region was created in Georgia and North Ossetia was formed in Russia.
In the twilight of the Soviet Union, as Georgian nationalist Zviad Gamsakhurdia came to prominence in Tbilisi, South Ossetia too flexed its separatist muscles. Soviet forces were sent to keep the peace in late 1989 following violent clashes between Georgians and Ossetians in the capital, Tskhinvali. Violence flared again as South Ossetia declared its intention to secede from Georgia in 1990 and, the following year, effective independence.
Protesters rally against presence of Georgian troops near South Ossetia
The collapse of the USSR and Georgian independence in 1991 did nothing to dampen South Ossetia's determination to consolidate the break with Tbilisi. Sporadic violence involving Georgian irregular forces and Ossetian fighters continued until the summer of 1992 when agreement on the deployment of Georgian, Ossetian and Russian peacekeepers was reached. Hundreds died in the fighting.
Political stalemate followed. Separatist voices became less strident during President Shevardnadze's rule in Georgia. South Ossetia, its economy and infrastructure a shambles and crime rife, faded from the headlines. It returned to the foreground when Mikhail Saakashvili took the reins as president in Tbilisi.
He was quick to spell out his intention to bring breakaway regions to heel. He has offered South Ossetia dialogue and autonomy within a single Georgian state but that falls far short of what separatists demand.
It came as no surprise when South Ossetians voted overwhelmingly in favour of restating their demand for independence from Tbilisi in an unrecognised referendum in November 2006. A simultaneous referendum among the region's ethnic Georgians voted just as emphatically to stay with Tbilisi.
Russia maintains close contacts with the leadership in Tskhinvali where separatists welcome Moscow's supportive stance. To Georgia's deep annoyance, most South Ossetians have Russian passports and the Russian rouble is commonly used in trade.
The tensions came to head in early August 2008, when, after nearly a week of clashes between Georgian troops and separatist forces, Georgia launched an full air and ground assault attack on South Ossetia, reportedly gaining control of Tskhinvali.
Russia said its citizens were under attack and responded by pouring thousands of troops into South Ossetia and launching bombing raids on Georgian targets. Within days, Russian troops had swept the Georgian forces out of both South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and then proceeded to occupy parts of Georgia.
Although Russia pulled its forces back towards South Ossetia and Abkhazia under a cease-fire agreement brokered by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, it kept control of a buffer zone on the breakaway republics' borders, prompting the US and France to accuse Moscow of failing to abide by the truce deal.
Days later, Russia announced it was formally recognising both South Ossetia and Abkhazia, to protests from the West, which also criticised Russia for sending troops beyond the republics' boundaries.
In April 2009, a week before Nato exercises in Georgia, Russia consolidated its position in South Ossetia by signing a five-year agreement to take formal control of its frontiers with Georgia proper, as well as those of Abkhazia.
Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev called the Nato exercise an "act of overt provocation". Nato said the frontier agreement contravened the August 2008 ceasefire.
Territory: South Ossetia Status: Break-away region of Georgia. Separated from Georgia in a 1991-92 war.
- Status: Region within Georgia
- Population: Approximately 70,000
- Capital: Tskhinvali
- Major languages: Ossetian, Georgian, Russian
- Major religion: Christianity
- Currency: Russian rouble, Georgian lari
President: Eduard Kokoity
One-time wrestling champion Eduard Kokoity, or Kokoyev, won unrecognised presidential elections in South Ossetia in December 2001 and again in November 2006.
A businessman and former communist, he holds Russian citizenship.
South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoity
He has angered Tbilisi by stating his aim to be the unification of North and South Ossetia within the Russian Federation. He describes Russia as the main guarantor of stability in the Caucasus and has strong ties with the like-minded Abkhaz leadership.
He has warned Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili against aggressive Georgian nationalism and insists that the people of South Ossetia do not regard themselves as part of Georgia.
Mr Kokoity was born in 1964.
The South Ossetian authorities operate a TV service and programmes from Russia are rebroadcast in the territory.
Private media are not prohibited, but the private newspaper XXI Vek publishes only sporadically. In early 2009, popular Russian tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda said it had launched a weekly edition for the territory.
Georgian state-run TV broadcasts a daily news programme in Ossetian; a daily two-hour programme in the language is aired by Georgian state radio.
Russian-language, pro-Georgian station Alania TV targets viewers in South Ossetia from a transmitter in Georgia.
- Yuzhnaya Osetiya - Russian-language, state-funded
- Khurzarin - Ossetian-language, state-funded
- Ir - operated by State Committee for TV and Radio Broadcasting
- Ayzeld FM - private radio station
- Volna FM - launched in 2009
- RES - operated by South Ossetian Press and Information Committee