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Unwanted Guests

North Ossetians claim their ethnic kin from neighbouring Georgia have abused their hospitality
By Valeri Dzutsev

The 38,000 South Ossetian refugees marooned in North Ossetia are caught, as the saying goes, between the hammer and the anvil.


On the one hand, their ethnic homeland across the Russian border still struggles to maintain its de facto independence from the Georgian state. On the other, their hosts, the North Ossetians, make it clear they have long outstayed their welcome.


And the international aid agencies, whose efforts are focused on neighbouring Chechnya and Ingushetia, remain apparently indifferent to their plight.


In the late 1980s, the South Ossetians became victims of the rise of nationalism in Georgia and Moscow's efforts to retain control over the Soviet republic.


They soon became aware that the autonomous oblast was in danger of being torn away from its ethnic twin since North Ossetia was destined to remain part of the Russian Federation.


In the build-up to independence, non-Georgian nationals found themselves excluded from top government positions and their prospects for social advancement were drastically reduced.


With the declaration of Georgian independence, the South Ossetian autonomous oblast declared its own right to secede - a right denied by Tbilisi which promptly renamed South Ossetia "Shida Kartli" - Inner Georgia.


Moscow was quick to seize upon the Ossetians' discontent as a means of retaining a foothold in the south Caucasus. As a result, Ossetians living in Georgia were branded "Kremlin spies" and enemies of the newly independent state.


The consequences were predictable. Fighting broke out in 1989 and dragged on until 1991. Of the 174,000 Ossetians in Georgia (according to the last Soviet census), only 55,000 lived in the autonomous province of South Ossetia with the majority resident in Georgia.


Between 1989 and 1991, an estimated 100,000 Ossetians fled north to North Ossetia, which then boasted a population of just over 600,000. The massive influx of refugees, compounded by a steady stream of Ossetian migrants from Central Asia, put an impossible burden on the local infrastructure.


Without help from the Russian government and humanitarian aid organisations, the situation would undoubtedly have spiralled out of control.


The refugee problem also served to fuel tensions between North Ossetians and Ingush settlers and was a contributing factor to the 1992 conflict when bitter fighting in the Prigorodny region claimed around 300 lives.


However, it wasn't long before the South Ossetian refugees - immediately recognisable by their strong Ossetic accent - began to sense the growing local resentment. Against a background of rising unemployment and plummeting living standards, the North Ossetians came to see the refugees as scapegoats.


Resorts, sanatoriums and hotels were crammed with South Ossetian families, putting a huge strain on a tourism industry which once welcomed around a million visitors a year.


The refugees are also blamed for rising crime and the daily police reports never fail to associate at least one incident with a "South Ossetian national".


But, despite the growing hostility, the refugees have little hope of returning to their ethnic homeland which has become a notorious haven for smugglers and organised crime gangs.


And the government in Tskhinvali makes little attempt to seek a political rapprochement with Tbilisi -- not least because the Georgian economy is in an advanced state of collapse and trade opportunities across the Russian border are infinitely more attractive.


Valeri Dzutsev is a regular IWPR contributor


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