Chicago Tribune
May 14 2006

Breakaway regions `two black holes' for Georgia

By Alex Rodriguez
Tribune foreign correspondent
Published May 14, 2006


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 Ossetians 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, stewarded 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."

Lasting separatist conflicts

The Soviet Union's breakup in 1991 yielded 15 new nations, but it
also spawned several lasting separatist conflicts that have inflicted
a swath of misery and poverty from Eastern Europe's Dniester River to
the Caucasus range on Russia's southern border.

In Europe's poorest nation, Moldova, pro-Moscow separatists have
clung to a sliver of land along the Dniester, calling their
unrecognized state Transdniester. In 1991, Armenians in
Nagorno-Karabakh, a fertile, horseshoe-shaped patch of land in
Azerbaijan, declared their de facto independence after ousting Azeri
forces.

For decades, ethnic Abkhazians and Ossetians endured a tense
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 governments, setting
up foreign ministries, parliaments and defense departments. However,
those governments survive solely as a result of backing from the
Kremlin, which has peacekeeping troops in both regions.

Georgia has effectively cordoned off Abkhazia and South Ossetia from
trade with the rest of the country, but the regions border Russia,
giving them a conduit for Russian goods and arms. Russia also has
given 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 Transdniester, has become even more important
to the Kremlin as Georgia and Moldova have shifted their allegiances
to the West. 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."

10,000 lost livelihoods

Citing concerns about smuggling, Saakashvili's administration in 2004
shut South Ossetia's market, where Georgians and Ossetians bought and
sold gas, cigarettes, produce and other goods amid a sea of
corrugated metal stalls and wooden shacks. The market's closing cost
10,000 Ossetians their livelihoods, 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. They point to the Georgian government's recent decision to
move its military hospital 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 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.

In Tskhinvali, Ossetians say another round of conflict in a war that
has shadowed them for 15 years is the last thing they want--and
foremost on their minds right now.

"Women, old men and even our children will protect our homeland,"
said Jana Meshchereykova, an Ossetian doctor. Her 24-year-old son
died when Georgian gunmen ambushed a busload of Ossetians in 1992.
"Each person has to die on the land where he was born. We don't want
war, but we will protect ourselves."