Breakaway regions pose challenge for Georgia

May 14, 2006|By ALEX RODRIGUEZ | ALEX RODRIGUEZ,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

TSKHINVALI, Georgia -- The separatist government in this crumbling war-scarred city at the foot of the Caucasus Mountains has its own flag, anthem, president and prime minister - and little else.

Most of the economy in South Ossetia, of which Tskhinvali is the capital, vanished two years ago when Georgian troops shut down a large open-air market that they insisted was a haven for smuggling. Buildings half-destroyed in the region's 1991 war with Georgia have never been rebuilt. People scrape by on $50 a month or less.

Still, it's a life that suffices for the tiny, unrecognized state's 65,000 people, a life they say they will fiercely defend to the last person.

"We can't live very well here, but somehow we survive," said Timur Tskhovbrov, one of thousands of Ossetian men who fought Georgian troops. "Here in the mountains, we can fight in the woods for a long time. They will win, of course, but we'll cause them a lot of trouble."

That kind of defiance poses the greatest challenge for Washington's strongest ally in the Caucasus region, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, as he steers his country westward.

Since leading the Rose Revolution that ousted Eduard Shevardnadze in 2003, Saakashvili has replaced his country's entire police force to rein in corruption, fostered strong economic growth and returned the breakaway province of Ajaria back under Georgia's control.

But he has yet to live up to his promise to regain authority over Georgia's two other breakaway regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. And as Saakashvili strives to move Georgia out of the Kremlin's orbit and into Europe's, his administration realizes South Ossetia and Abkhazia stand in the way.

"These are two black holes," said Giorgi Khaindrava, Georgia's conflict settlement minister. "They're open doors for smuggling, for illegal militias, for drug trafficking. They're two serious wounds, and until we cure them, we can't begin to talk about the health of the whole country."

For decades, ethnic Abkhazians and Ossetians endured a tense, uneasy relationship with their Georgian neighbors while Georgia was a Soviet republic. After Georgia declared its independence in 1991, civil war broke out between both ethnic groups and Georgian troops. Abkhazians defended their lush homeland of orange groves and palm trees along the Black Sea coast; Ossetians fought Georgian forces in the forested mountainsides and valleys of South Ossetia.

Cease-fires ended major combat in South Ossetia in 1992 and in Abkhazia in 1994. Separatist leaders established full-fledged governments, setting up foreign ministries, parliaments and defense departments. However, those governments survive solely as a result of backing from the Kremlin, which maintains peacekeeping troops in both regions.

Georgia has effectively cordoned off Abkhazia and South Ossetia from trade with the rest of the country, but both regions border Russia, giving them a conduit for Russian goods and arms. Russia has also granted citizenship to virtually all South Ossetians and about 80 percent of Abkhazia's population.

Russia's military and economic presence in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as well as in the breakaway Moldovan region of Transdniester, has become even more important to the Kremlin as Georgia and Moldova have shifted their allegiances to Washington and Western Europe. For the Kremlin, control over Abkhazia and South Ossetia provides leverage against a Georgian government that sees its destiny under the wing of NATO.

For many Ossetians, however, the dependence on Russia is disconcerting.

"Now we live on Russian aid only, and that's very bad - it's like we're drug addicts," said Alan Parastayev, head of the Civic Society Movement, an Ossetian non-governmental organization based in Tskhinvali. "It wasn't like this before 2004."

Citing concerns about smuggling, Saakashvili's administration in 2004 shut down South Ossetia's open-air market, where Georgians and Ossetians bought and sold gasoline, cigarettes, produce and other goods amid a sea of corrugated metal stalls and wooden shacks. The market's closure cost 10,000 Ossetians their livelihoods, Ossetian officials say.

"They were only interested in establishing an economic blockade and shutting down the breath of the people," said Boris Chochiyev, South Ossetia's deputy prime minister and its representative at peace talks with Georgia, Russia and the Russian republic of North Ossetia.

Ossetian officials are convinced Georgia's next step will be military action. They point to the Georgian government's recent decision to move its military hospital from the Georgian capital of Tbilisi to the city of Gori, just outside the South Ossetian border, as well as sizable increases in Georgian defense spending. Georgia also recently opened a new military base outside Abhkazia.

Khaindrava, Georgia's conflict settlement minister, says fears about Georgian military action are misplaced.

"The only way out is political pressure on Russia and international law," he said.

Ossetians believe their only recourse is to brace for war. Khaindrava says Russia has supplied Ossetian forces with tanks, armored vehicles and anti-aircraft artillery. The region's prime minister, Yuri Morozov, would not discuss his military's arms or troop strength, but he said his government is convinced that Ossetians living in Russia and Abkhaz forces would come to the region's aid if fighting broke out.

"The South Ossetian army is several times smaller than the Georgian army," Morozov said, "but within three days, we can bring our number of troops up to match theirs."

Alex Rodriguez writes for the Chicago Tribune.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.