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North Ossetian Crossing Hopes In Limbo

Plans to increase traffic across the North Ossetian border are hanging in the balance.

The North Ossetian government’s plans to turn the republic into a major transport hub are being hampered by war in Chechnya and tension between Russia and Georgia.

Vladimir Tabolov, head of the department for foreign relations in the government of North Ossetia – an autonomous republic within the Russian Federation - claims hundreds of thousands annually cross the frontier, but admits that ambitious plans to expand the crossing route are being thwarted by conflict and regional politics.

Since the beginning of the second Chechen war in 1999, non-CIS citizens have been banned from crossing the North Ossetia-Georgia border. And in 2000, Moscow and Tbilisi required each other’s citizens to obtain visas, which further complicated matters.

The inhabitants of the South Ossetia - a breakaway region of Georgia - and some other Georgian territories adjacent to North Ossetia are exempt from the visa regime, as are North Ossetians.

Two of the four main mountainous routes connecting the north and south Caucasus go via North Ossetia. One through Nizhny Zaramag passes into South Ossetia, while one to the east crosses the famous Georgian Military Highway and runs directly down to Tbilisi.

These two roads, particular the first one into South Ossetia, are a considerable source of wealth for North Ossetia and the main means of sustenance for its southern neighbour. The latter gets practically all its supplies this way.

But war in Chechnya and tensions between Russia and Georgia have depressed the Vladikavkaz

government’s hopes to develop the routes.

The South Ossetian road is the only one of the two that can be developed for large amounts of traffic. The Georgian Military Highway is more problematic because the main gas pipeline to the south Caucasus runs beside it. The latter would have to be moved for the route to be widened – a prohibitively expensive operation.

At Nizhny Zaramag, the North Ossetian authorities are using federal money to increase the reception capacity of the frontier crossing by four or five times.

The Russian border guards commander at the checkpoint there says already approximately 700-800 vehicles pass in both directions every day, twice as much as the post is supposed to handle. But drivers passing across the frontier believe the expansion plan has little chance of succeeding unless the authorities crackdown on corrupt customs officials.

The anger at corruption at the border-crossings has been so loud that Vladikavkaz officials have set up a new special service to coordinate customs units and deal with travellers’ complaints.

“They create queues deliberately, so they can collect tips for passage from those who can pay,” said Ruslan, a lorry driver. Alan and Aslan, also truckers, estimate that it normally costs them about 10,000 roubles (or 300 US dollars) in bribes to get from Alagir, the town at the head of the valley on the North Ossetian side to Tskhinval, the capital of South Ossetia.

Valery Dzutsev is IWPR’s North Caucasus coordinator, based in Vladikavkaz.

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