Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Georgia's Showcase in South Ossetia

South Ossetians are offered incentives to move to Georgian-controlled territory.
By Irina Keleskhaeva, Mari Betlemidze

In the middle of South Ossetia, the formerly quiet village of Kheiti is now a hive of activity.



A newly-built red-roofed block of flats sits in an empty swathe of land. The site around the building, all mountains of sand and cement, is swarming with trucks, cranes and other heavy machinery, all of them busy constructing new apartment blocks here.



Kheiti is mostly inhabited by Georgians, and is only five or six kilometres from the village of Kurta, the seat of the pro-Tbilisi “provisional administration” of South Ossetia led by Dmitry Sanakoyev.



The red-roofed building is home to 30 Ossetian families, who were moved here by Sanakoyev’s administration in early November.



Kurta, Kheiti and several other Georgian-populated villages are the only part of South Ossetia that remained under Tbilisi’s jurisdiction after the 1990-92 Georgian-Ossetian conflict.



The Georgian government now terms the area a “temporary administrative entity”, headed by Sanakoyev, an ethnic Ossetian who defected to the Georgian side and who was elected an alternative leader of the disputed region in 2006.



The rest of South Ossetia, a region that unilaterally seceded from Georgia, is controlled by a de facto government led by president Eduard Kokoity.



The presence of the Ossetian families is a highly charged political issue.



The Sanakoyev administration says the families now living in the new block of flats have moved here to escape life in the capital Tskhinval (called Tskhinvali by the Georgians). The authorities in Tskhinval dispute this.



The entrance to the building is guarded, and a special pass is required to gain entry. Residents are only allowed to talk to journalists in the presence of a security service agent. Nor are they particularly keen to talk about how they came to live in Kheiti.



Only one girl, 16-year-old Yekaterian Turayeva, did not seem deterred by the presence of minders, and happily answered IWPR’s questions.



“We moved here quite recently, but I already have new friends,” said Yekaterina, explaining that that she came to Kheiti from Tskhinval together with her parents and her younger brother. “I go to school in Kurta. I want to study law after I finish school and become a judge.”



Even Yekaterina refused to be photographed, even after a security agent proved surprisingly cooperative and complimented the girl on her appearance in an attempt to coax her into posing for a picture.



The pro-Tbilisi temporary administration of South Ossetia has provided each of the 30 families with a flat equipped with new household equipment and furniture, as well as with the sum of 6,000 laris (around 3,800 dollars).



In addition, one member from each family has been given a job in the temporary administration and receives a monthly salary worth 500 US dollars, which is paid onto a plastic card and can be drawn at a bank near the block of flats.



One Kheiti resident, who wished not to be named, told IWPR that the work was a pure formality, and the new employees were receiving the money for doing nothing.



“In actual fact, they do no work”, he said. “They are simply registered as employed and get wages.”



The apartment block has a central heating system, and is served by guards, cooks and maids round the clock, all free of charge. This prosperity is causing resentment among other locals.



Life is tough in the Georgian villages a short distance from Kheiti, and the locals do not conceal their anger at the luxuries being enjoyed by the Ossetian arrivals.



“We are nearly starving,” said Robinzon Babutsidze, 51, who is unemployed and lives in the village of Kvemo Anchabeti. “We can’t find jobs. We used to make a living by selling apples. But the Tskhinvali road has been closed for a long time, and taking apples to the market by the detour road is too expensive.



“Instead of helping us, they brought in Ossetians to Kheiti, who live there as if they were presidents. Is this what we fought for in the Nineties?”



Babutsidze’s neighbours take up the theme when they meet every morning in the village.



“As far as we know, the resettlers have a dirty past that makes it impossible for them to live in Tskhinvali,” said one elderly man, who declined to give his name.



But pro-Tbilisi leader Sanakoyev says he is proud people have come from the other part of South Ossetia to live in his territory.



“We promised these people we’d create conditions for them that would be better than those they had, or could have ever have, in Tskhinvali,” he said. “We always keep our promises. I think many people will join the 30 families soon, leaving Kokoity alone with his criminal entourage.”



Shota Malashkhia, who chairs the Georgian parliament’s commission charged with “restoring territorial integrity” – meaning the recovery of secessionist Abkhazia and South Ossetia - said, “The relocation of these people to the territory under our control shows that Kokoity’s regime is economically and morally unsustainable.”



The Georgian government says this is only the start of a much more ambitious programme. Last year it allocated six million laris (3.8 million dollars) for the Kheiti project. In addition to the existing apartment block, 120 more flats are to be built, most of them for settlers from Tskhinvali. There are also plans to build a sports ground, a car park and a stadium.



Despite freezing temperatures, the construction work has not stopped even for a day.



The new arrivals are reluctant to talk about the loved ones they have left behind in Tskhinvali. Some say they have stopped talking to family members to spare them problems, others that their relatives have cut contact with them.



In Tskhinval, Julietta Ostayeva, a parliamentary deputy and professor at South Ossetia’s university, was contemptuous about Ossetians who worked for the Sanakoyev administration.



“Who are these people? First of all, it seems to me they are people from marginal social groups who have a very low level of self-awareness, and do not understand that this is an organisation [the Sanakoyev administration] without a future,” she said.



“That is true of the low-level workers who went there. As for those who lead this ghostly organisation, they are people who betrayed the national idea and national interest – they have betrayed the motherland.”



Boris Chochiev, minister for special assignments in the de facto republic of South Ossetia, denied that a single person had moved from the territory controlled by his government to Kheiti, suggesting that the settlers came from other parts of Georgia.



“Isn’t it crazy to think that someone would leave South Ossetia for South Ossetia?” he said. “According to the information we possess, these are families resettled from various Georgian regions who had their houses seized or burnt down in [former president] Zviad Gamsakhurdia’s day [in 1990-91]. I think it would be better to give them back their old houses instead of building a new block of flats, and to take better care of the Georgians living in South Ossetia, who have been in a miserable state since the formation of the temporary administration.”



Chochiev said the Ossetian population regarded Sanakoyey and his team as traitors and would not follow them.



Some people in Tskhinvali confirmed to IWPR that they had received approaches to relocate, but said they were not persuaded.



Tskhinval resident Vladimir Laliev (not his real name) told IWPR, “Today I happen to be out of work, and they jumped at it, telling me ‘You see, you are such a good specialist and the Kokoyev government doesn’t need you. Come on, move here, bring your family with you, we’ll give you 1,500 dollars a month and give your wife a job as well.’



“They promised to provide me with bodyguards, a car and a comfortable life in Tbilisi or Kurta – the choice was mine. I think they are hunting for people who are unemployed or have a grudge against the authorities. They are looking for people who are morally wavering. I refused... I was born here and will never exchange Ossetia in return for money.”



Mariam Betlemidze is a correspondent with IWPR’s Panorama newspaper in Tbilisi. Irina Kelekhsayeva is a freelance journalist in Tskhinval, South Ossetia. Both are members of IWPR’s EU-funded Cross Caucasus Journalism Network.