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

South Ossetia Braced for Conflict

A summer full of fear and violence leaves South Ossetians expecting the worst in the confrontation with Tbilisi.
By Irina Kelekhsayeva
One of the points of tension in South Ossetia this July has been the unofficial border-post between South Ossetia and Georgia near the village of Ergneti. For several months now, the border has been under the control of special units of the Georgian interior ministry and military police. The Georgian troops are in uniform with black masks hiding their faces.

For three weeks, a group of cars has been waiting at this post. Their passengers are Russian, Armenian, and Lithuanian citizens of Armenian origin - all of them wanting to travel to Armenia via South Ossetia, after passing through North Ossetia and the Roki tunnel into the unrecognised republic. They have about 20 children with them, who cannot remember when they last took a bath or ate a proper meal.

Agaron Babaian, heading for Armenia from Volgograd, has been stuck here for 19 days. He said that the only reason given to them for refusing them onward passage is that “we’ve travelled through South Ossetia”.

The hot summer is proving full of tension for South Ossetia. Georgian defence minister Irakli Okruashvili recently raised the temperature when he said he hoped to celebrate next New Year in Tskhinvali (which Ossetians call Tskhinval).

Georgia’s conflict resolution minister Giorgi Khaindrava, who was responsible for dealing with South Ossetia, was sacked on July 21 after openly disagreeing with Okruashvili about the situation in the troubled region.

South Ossetia has been outside Tbilisi’s since 1992 and has declared independence. After years of relative peace, fighting broke out there again in the summer of 2004 and dozens of people were killed.

This summer, tensions are running particularly high near the Tamarasheni, an ethnic Georgian village inside South Ossetia. Most residents of South Ossetia have Russian passports, which provides a pretext for the Georgian policemen near Tamarasheni to harass them.

Dina Alborova, a human rights campaigner from South Ossetia, experienced this at first hand.

“At the end of June, I was going back home to Tskhinval from a trip abroad,” she said. “In Tamarasheni our car was stopped by two Georgians, who asked us to show our passports. They looked through our gear and started examining our documents. They had no military insignia, and it was unclear which service they belonged to. Then they started to demand an entrance visa to Georgia, although they knew I lived in Tskhinval. They made fun of me, saying there was no South Ossetia, there was only Georgia which I, a Russian citizen, was trying to enter.”

A businesswoman from Tskhinval, Zalina Gabayeva, says that after she showed her Russian passport at the same checkpoint, a uniformed man threatened to tear it up or rub out everything that was written in it.

The situation first began to heat up more than a month ago, after a Georgian police post was unexpectedly moved 400 metres nearer to the village of Pris on June 14 and a brigade of Georgian interior ministry special forces appeared in the village, frightening the locals.

Then, early on the morning of July 9 the secretary of South Ossetia’s security council, Oleg Alborov, was killed by a remote-controlled bomb as he was opening the doors of his garage.

The South Ossetian authorities accused the Georgian government of plotting Alborov’s assassination – although some locals are inclined to point to other causes, such as an incident in which Alborov shot dead a teenager trying to highjack his car.

Five days later, another explosion targeted Bala Bestauty, a deputy in the South Ossetian parliament and commander of a defence ministry unit. The explosion killed two teenagers who were passing by, while Bestauty himself escaped death.

Bestauty is a popular and respected figure in South Ossetia who took part in the defence of the Pris Heights above Tskhinval in 2004, so most people saw this as a purely politically motivated attack.

Predictions that war was about to break out became rife on July 13 and 14, when travellers on the Trans-Caucasian highway connecting South Ossetia and Russia saw a military column of 300 military vehicles, tanks and other military equipment moving towards the Roki Tunnel from the North Ossetian side.

Three days passed before any information was made public, and it was then announced that the armoured column was taking part in Russian “military exercises” in the North Caucasus

On July 16, the parliament of Northern Ossetia, on the Russian side of the border, passed a resolution promising to “provide any kind of help to our brothers in South Ossetia if necessary”.

In its turn, the Georgian parliament passed a July 18 resolution calling for the withdrawal of all Russian peacekeeping forces from both Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

The sacking of Khaindrava on July 21 confirmed in the minds of many that Georgia was preparing for war.

Boris Chochiev, South Ossetia’s chief negotiator in the talks with Georgia, commented, “The ‘party of war’ in the Georgian leadership is taking the lead. The resignation of Giorgi Khaindrava is a continuation of the programme devised by defence minister Irakli Okruashvili and it’s aimed at resolving the conflict by force.”

South Ossetian resident Yuri Dzidtsoity agrees. “I think war is a real prospect,” he said. “A gun hanging on the wall in the first act of a play is sure to go off in the second. If they hold exercises, and build bases and morgues, then they have some intentions. Russia taking its troops to the Roki Tunnel is no coincidence either. It’s ludicrous to think that [the Georgians and Russians] will just exchange fire and bypass our territory.”

South Ossetia is thus bracing itself for conflict. Men of all ages have been receiving call-up papers and are preparing to be drafted into armed militias.

Even patients at the Nadezhda addiction clinic are being drafted. The director of the centre Lira Tskhovrebova said that two of her charges had been called up and would have to cut short the treatment and go for military drilling.

Other South Ossetians say they are praying they won’t be caught up in a new war.

According to teacher Esma Abayeva, “A war will begin only if their [the Georgians’] heads stop working. Because that will be the end of Georgia, as it is sure to lose the war. If a war does begin, I’m not going anywhere. I was born here, I live here and I have to see my people become free at last.”

Pensioner Vera Jagayeva said, “I don’t think there will be a war. I’m sure of it, because Georgians know that they won’t win this war. This is what all ordinary Georgians are sure of, too. If a war does start, I will send my children away, but I won’t move a single step out of here myself. I’m certain ordinary Georgians don’t want a war either.”

Irina Kelekhsayeva is a freelance journalist in Tskhinval, South Ossetia.