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North Ossetia

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Updated: 27.11.2003

Also called Northern Ossetia, or Ossetia, Russian Severnaya Osetiya, republic in south-western Russia, on the northern flank of the Greater Caucasus range. It is bordered on the south by Georgia and on the north by the Sunzha and Terek ranges. Area 3,100 square miles (8,000 square km). Pop. (1995 est.) 658,000.

North Ossetia is mountainous, with the Glavny (Main) Range reaching 15,682 feet (4,780 m) at Mount Dzhimara and other peaks in the republic reaching more than 14,000 feet (4,250 m). Parallel to the Glavny crest range is a series of lower ranges through which the rivers have cut deep and picturesque gorges.

The republic lies wholly in the basin of the upper Terek River and its fast-flowing tributaries, which emerge in the mountains and join before cutting through the Sunzha Range to the north in another deep gorge. A northern panhandle of the republic extends over the Sunzha and Terek ranges to include part of the middle Terek Plain around Mozdok.

Climate, soils, and vegetation all vary sharply with the relief. In the lowest areas there is steppe vegetation on fertile black-earth soils, which give way higher up to dense deciduous forests of oak and beech. Higher still are coniferous forests of spruce, fir, and pine, eventually giving way to alpine meadow and finally to bare rock and ice. The severity of the temperature regime and the rainfall both increase with height. In the river basins precipitation is 24 inches (600 mm) a year or less; on higher areas, up to 35 inches (900 mm).

The Ossetians are a people of mixed Iranian-Japhetic (Caucasian) origin; their language belongs to the Iranian group of the Indo-European family of languages.

From the 7th century BC to the 1st century AD, Ossetia came under Scythian-Sarmatian influence, which was succeeded by that of the warlike Alani, who are believed to be the direct ancestors of the present-day Ossetians. Later the Mongol empire of the 13th century extended its sway over Ossetia, and the Alani were forced to move into the mountainous regions.

Russian colonisation began in the northern Ossetian area, especially after the establishment of the fortress of Vladikavkaz in 1784.

In addition to Ossetians and Russians, the republic is populated by Ingush, Armenians, Georgians, and Ukrainians. The largest city is the capital, Vladikavkaz.

Industry in the republic is concentrated in Vladikavkaz and includes metallurgy and the manufacture of building materials and food products; there is also mining for lead, zinc, and boron. In the mountains, timber exploitation, particularly of beech forests, is important on both flanks of the Caucasus. Hydroelectric plants have been built on the Terek River at Vladikavkaz and on the Gizeldon River.

Agriculture is concentrated on the lower slopes and near Mozdok; the irrigated fields produce wheat, corn (maize), potatoes, hemp, and fruit. Sheep and cattle are raised on the higher slopes.

Two major highways across the Caucasus pass through Ossetia - the Georgian and Ossetian military highways, which were built in the 19th century during the Russian conquest of the Caucasus. A new all-weather highway to essentially replace these roads as a major transport route was under construction in the late 20th century.

Vladikavkaz is also linked by highways with Grozny and the Caspian Sea and with Rostov-on-Don. The republic is also served by the Rostov-Baku railway.

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