Last Updated: Wednesday, 23 April 2014, 10:56 GMT

Georgia: South Ossetia - one year later: Running on empty, despite Russian help

Publisher EurasiaNet
Publication Date 10 August 2009
Cite as EurasiaNet, Georgia: South Ossetia - one year later: Running on empty, despite Russian help, 10 August 2009, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4a8414fa1f.html [accessed 24 April 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Photos by Karen Mirzoyan: 8/10/09

South Ossetia on August 7-9 marked the first anniversary since Georgia attempted to forcefully regain control of the breakaway territory. A series of bittersweet events both mourned the loss of life during last summer's war and celebrated the Russian-backed "independence" achieved in its aftermath.

On the night of August 7, thousands packed Tskhinvali's main square for a memorial concert of somber music, accompanied by pictures from the war playing silently on a big screen. "Peace has come to the land of Ossetia, but our people have suffered for it," Eduard Kokoity, South Ossetia's separatist leader, told the crowd. "We will never forget the Ossetian and Russian heroes of August 2008." Abkhaz leader Sergei Bagapsh and various representatives of the Russian Duma made other speeches from a stage adorned with a huge South Ossetian flag on one side, and a Russian flag on the other.

There is little doubt that South Ossetia now functions essentially as a part of the Russian Federation. The population is tiny – officially around 70,000, but independent local experts suggest probably closer to 35,000. Almost all of the region's budget comes from Moscow; almost all residents now have Russian passports, and Russia's "security guarantees" essentially involve turning the region into a Russian garrison.

"South Ossetia will simply become a service point for a big Russian army base," said one local official who didn't want to be named. "If Russia stopped giving money for one month, everyone here would die of hunger."

When Russian President Dmitri Medvedyev visited the region in July and saw for himself how slowly the reconstruction work is proceeding, he made his irritation clear to Kokoity, say sources close to the South Ossetian de facto president. In early August, a new prime minister was appointed – a businessman from the Russian city of Chelyabinsk – to oversee spending.

"Of all the planned renovations of private homes, less than 5 percent have been started," said Vakhtang Dzhigkayev, deputy head of the Tskhinvali Administration with responsibility for economic issues, and one of the few South Ossetian officials willing to talk openly about the level of corruption in the region.

"Every family was meant to get 50,000 rubles (a bit over $1,582); less than 20 percent have received anything, even though the money has been transferred to South Ossetia," Dzhigkayev said. "Where is the rest of the money? Even in the Russian context of extreme corruption, what has happened here is beyond belief."

But while it is possible to find people like Dzhigkayev, occasional dissenting voices who question the course of the Kokoity government, there is unanimity on the issue of returning the territory to Georgian rule, or even on allowing the return of Georgians to the formerly Georgian-controlled villages in the region.

The villages of Tamarasheni and Kurta, the center of an alternative Tbilisi-backed government before the war, are in complete ruins. Every house was burnt and looted in the aftermath of the Georgian defeat last year, and all that remains are the sorry carcasses of buildings, eerily quiet and beyond renovation.

Tamarasheni blends almost imperceptibly into Tskhinvali itself; with the military posts gone, the only sign that these were two different settlements is that on one side all the buildings are destroyed and on the other they are not.

It is here, near the former border post, where the Moscow government is funding the giant Moskovsky housing development; on the other side of the road, a South Ossetian Army field camp has been set up. Painted stones have been arranged on the hillside to make a huge South Ossetian flag; from the camp, the gutted building that housed the pro-Georgian government administration is visible.

On a tour of the camp, Ossetian soldiers carried out a target practice drill, standing in a makeshift trench and shooting Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenades at the remains of a Georgian armored personnel carrier, left behind when the Georgian Army was routed last August. They were dressed in ragged combat fatigues, and some of them wore Adidas running shoes or even sandals.

The battalion's commander, Igor Algorov, said that the soldiers did not receive training from the Russians. Nevertheless, he insisted they were better prepared to fight than last year. "If the Georgians start something again, this time we will be ready," Algorov said. An aide from the de facto South Ossetian Ministry of Defense estimated that the region's armed forces numbered about 2,000. But others said that most of those enlisted in the Army simply have the task of guarding a post for two days a week and are not properly combat-trained.

Now that Russia has recognized South Ossetia as independent, however, it is not the South Ossetian militia, but the Russian Army that is the dominant force in the territory.

On a tour of the main Russian Army base in Tskhinvali, Russian officers showed off a new facility. Nobody knows exactly how many Russian troops are stationed in the region; officially the Kremlin plans to have 3,000 in South Ossetia and Abkhazia by the end of the year, though many in South Ossetia say the real figure is already much higher. On a journey across the border with North Ossetia last week, a convoy of several dozen vehicles, including eight trucks of soldiers, was traveling south.

That presence has built confidence that South Ossetia can withstand Georgia, come what may.

In the formerly Georgian village of Eredvi, all the houses are looted and torched; a newly renovated three-story school has been gutted; children's homework and art projects lay scattered across the corridors amid shards of broken glass.

The only sign of life in the village was a Russian armored personnel carrier, manned by four Russian soldiers and one South Ossetian, tucked behind a bush near a dirt track that leads into Georgia proper. "Only God and [Georgian President Mikheil] Saakashvili know if there'll be another war," said one soldier. "But if there is, we are ready to crush them again."

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