Ossetia: Tangerine Protest Ends

Authorities break up politically embarrassing border demo.

Ossetia: Tangerine Protest Ends

Authorities break up politically embarrassing border demo.

Protesters who were obstructing the only road that links Russia with South Ossetia with cargoes of tangerines this week lifted their blockade after pressure from the authorities in North Ossetia.

The dispute has been a severe political embarrassment for the Russian and Ossetian authorities, coming after Moscow’s strong public support for the unrecognised republic’s moves to break away from Georgia. More than 60 lorries full of tangerines had blocked the highway near the customs terminal of Nizhny Zaramag in response to the Russian border guards' refusal to let them enter Russian territory on the grounds that they were illegally transporting Georgian produce.

A year ago, the Russian government banned the import of all agricultural products from Georgia. Despite this, traders - mostly Ossetians - said that they had been allowed to transport herbs and tangerines freely until December 19 last year when the road was suddenly closed to them. After spending two weeks in the cabs of their vehicles, the first tried unsuccessfully to force their way through and then placed their own vehicles across the road on January 5

"This is the third time I have travelled this way, up ‘till now they have let us pass through normally,” said Rimma Vorokova, a cargo owner from the North Caucasian republic of Kabardino-Balkaria, transporting 30 tonnes of tangerines worth 700,000 roubles (27,000 US dollars.)

"We are being told that this is contraband from Georgia but we bought this in South Ossetia, so how could any contraband have reached Russian customs?" said Vorokova. "All that we had is in these vehicles. We have borrowed money, mortgaged our houses, and we will stand here until we are allowed to go through.”

When the dispute began, the traders appealed for help to Oleg Teziev, chairman of the NGO Civil Initiative and a former commander of the South Ossetian armed forces.

"I asked them whether they understood that they were criminals. They said they did but they were not alone. I telephoned the office of [North Ossetian leader] Taimuraz Mamsurov and said that he had to act. We should not drive these people to desperate measures,” Teziev told IWPR.

“It is very serious when a road that is vital for South Ossetia is blocked. My opinion is that they should have let them cross, fining them or probably confiscating their cargoes. I am sorry for the human work that has gone to waste. These tangerines will now be spoiled."

The Nizhny Zaramag checkpoint has recently been the only land crossing point open between Russia and Georgia - although because it leads into South Ossetia it has been closed to Georgians. The Verkhny Lars crossing that leads directly from Russia to Georgia was closed last August on the grounds that it needed refurbishment, although Georgians say that the closure was in fact politically motivated. It now remains closed, following Russian complete transport ban on Georgia last autumn.

During the five-day blockade, it was possible to cross Nizhny Zaramag only on foot. Border guards helped some Russian women drag their heavy bags across. The protesters’ lorries and Russian military armoured personnel carriers stood face-to-face with each other in sub-zero temperatures.

The North Ossetian authorities took the decision to clear the road by force on the fourth day of the protest but the owners of the tangerines lay down under the wheels of their vehicles and the armoured vehicles had to retreat.

The North Ossetian authorities eventually broke up the protest when police detained three female traders whom they had identified as the organisers of the blockade. IWPR saw the women being taken from their vehicles into the customs terminal for what were described as “talks”. The women started shouting loudly, but North Ossetia’s deputy interior minister Soslan Sikoyev who met them ordered them to be taken by car to the prosecutor's office.

The women were later reported to have been released after questioning.

After this, the road re-opened, but there were conflicting reports about what happened to the vehicles. Some media reports said that they returned to South Ossetia, but North Ossetian traffic policemen said that most of them had remained in the vicinity of the border crossing.

The tough response by the authorities has dismayed many ordinary Ossetians.

"They let through vehicles with herbs and apples are because this business belongs to someone from the top leadership, but they do not let us, ordinary people, through with tangerines," complained Zarema Jioyeva, who lives in the North Ossetian capital Vladikavkaz.

Inal, a South Ossetian, who saw what happened at the crossing said, "I am sure that they were promised that they would let them pass without hindrance, and then they blocked the road on purpose. Someone is benefiting from this confrontation between Ossetians. This didn’t happen by chance.”

Alan Parastayev, head of the Civil Society - South Ossetia organisation, said, “ Many people have suffered in this situation, starting with the owners of the tangerines and ending with customs officers who let vehicles pass for money despite Russia's political course. The only side that has won is the Georgian political leadership and its puppet alternative South Ossetian government."

Parastayev was referring to the alternative pro-Georgian South Ossetian leader, former defence minister Dmitry Sanakoyev who has established a power-base in the Georgian village of Kurta.

Information Minister Vladimir Sanakoyev announced that his administration had agreed to buy 100 tonnes of the tangerines and was negotiating for the purchase of 80 further tonnes, “We are only not accepting spoiled goods because the tangerines at the front of the vehicles has frozen. The main thing is that this is not a trade operation but just the chance to support people whom Russia has refused the right to import their goods.”

In a statement, South Ossetia’s government information committee blamed Georgia’s security services for instigating the dispute.

Margarita Kulova, an analyst at North Ossetia’s Institute for Humanitarian and Social Research, blamed Russia's customs policy for the problem. “At the moment Russian customs policy is the primary factor hindering the comprehensive development of economic ties, including those with Georgia," she said.

"The ban on the import of agricultural produce that Russia has imposed is chiefly a political act, as similar tough measures against the presence of harmful substances in food products can objectively be taken with regard to many other food products imported into Russia from many countries round the world. Excessive administrative barriers on the border inflict economic damage not only on the state as a whole but also on individual regions such as Ossetia.”

Almost the only ordinary person who seemed to welcome the tangerine crisis was an old woman named Zarema living in the village of Nizhny Zaramag close to the customs terminal. During the three weeks that the vehicles stood idle at the border crossing, she brought coffee and tea in vacuum flasks to the protesters. By doing so, she said she "stopped people freezing and managed to earn some good money too".

Alan Tskhurbayev is North Ossetia correspondent for Gazeta.ru.

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