South Ossetians Puzzled by Leaders

Locals say officials were not ready for independence and may not even want it.

South Ossetians Puzzled by Leaders

Locals say officials were not ready for independence and may not even want it.

A year ago, Moscow recognised South Ossetia as an independent state, but the population of the tiny Caucasus country has still not figured out what that is supposed to mean.



South Ossetians celebrated through the night on August 26 last year when they heard Russia had recognised their independence, which they proclaimed after winning a war against Georgian troops in 1991-2.



A year later, they say they feel safer knowing Russia will protect them, but locals say the government was not ready for an independent status and may not even want it.



“Perhaps it is about adapting to the new circumstances, but I think we can now say that the readiness of our government for independence was less than 40 per cent,” said Alan Parastayev, a political commentator in Tskhinval.



“The main reason for this is that most people who are in power did not believe in our independence and what happened was for them entirely unexpected.”



President Eduard Kokoity said several times before the war that broke out in South Ossetia last August, when Russia intervened to drive out Georgian troops, that he wanted his state to unite with Ossetians living north of the mountains as part of Russia.



Earlier this month, not long before the anniversary of the war, he repeated the same words, suggesting that his own commitment to independence is weak.



“We will build our statehood, but we will be in a union with Russia. We do not rule out that we could enter the Russian Federation,” he told western journalists, although he retracted his words the next day, claiming the journalists had misunderstood him.



It is not surprising perhaps that some locals are confused by where their government is taking them, especially since it is not just Kokoity making such comments. Just days after the August War, parliament speaker Znaur Gassiev said South Ossetia would become part of Russia “in the course of the next few years, or even sooner”.



Although almost all South Ossetians have Russian passports and are grateful to Moscow for its support in the war last year, that does not mean they want their little country to become part of Russia.



“I am categorically against that,” said Timur Tskhovrebov, editor of 21st century, South Ossetia’s only independent newspaper.



“Our freedom cost us dear and we will not give it up for anything. A union with Russia would only be possible on equal terms.”



Local residents also wonder what the point of independence was, since it has failed to bring them much reconstruction – in marked contrast to Georgia proper, where international money has poured in to provide help and accommodation for those displaced by the war. Restoration work in Tskhinval only started this summer, a year after the war started.



“We need to get up from the warm bed of humanitarian aid and move to the full and autonomous life of a recognised state,” said Parastayev



But even the political life of the republic since recognition has not been smooth. Parliamentary elections in May could have been a showcase for the region, but were mired in scandal after almost all the opposition leaders were barred from running. As a result, the parliament is packed with Kokoity loyalists.



The government also had a rocky time. The republic lacked a prime minister for almost a year, and then on August 5 Vadim Brovtsev, the head of a major construction company from the Russian city of Chelyabinsk, was appointed to the post, despite having no previous connection to South Ossetia at all.



“He will have to be a genius to make a government capable of functioning since he does not know anyone here at all,” said Tskhovrebov.



But the increased role of Russia in South Ossetia could, according to political analyst Vissarion Aseyev, help society to start to demand more from the government.



“There used to be this feeling that we were at war and demanding something from the government was not right. But this barrier has been removed. The security issue is resolved and now we can move to creating our state. People have become more outspoken. New aims and demands have appeared. If before people thought only of bread, now they are thinking about butter too,” he said.



Tskhovrebov agreed, “We have escaped from not only the external enemy, but also from the dictatorship of the government. The new conditions will dictate new responsibilities to the authorities, and slowly everything will become more civilised.”



Alan Tskhurbaev is a freelance journalist based in Vladikavkaz.

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