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South Ossetia seeks to go it alone

A year after their soldiers helped repel Georgian troops battling for this separatist-held capital, South Ossetians say they are grateful for Russia's patronage and recognition of their independence claims.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A year after their soldiers helped repel Georgian troops battling for this separatist-held capital, South Ossetians say they are grateful for Russia's patronage and recognition of their independence claims.

But some wonder whether their tiny would-be nation can go it alone: Only Russia and Nicaragua have established diplomatic relations. Many are scratching their heads over where $300 million in promised reconstruction aid from Moscow went and lament the sorry state of their economy.

"First, they said Tskhinvali will change beyond recognition," said Liliya Gagloyeva, a 60-year old former seamstress as she stood in her bullet-pocked apartment at 118 Heroes Street, an area heavily damaged by the fighting last year. "But nothing happened."

A year on, the capital is still filled with fractured and disfigured buildings, some damaged by the 2008 war, others crumbling after more than a decade of skirmishing and neglect. Water and power supplies are erratic.

Nor has the economy of this region of about 60,000 people improved and South Ossetia is more economically isolated from Georgia than ever. Before the war, both sides permitted significant cross boundary trade and traffic.

Now, Russia and South Ossetia have halted all trade and restricted entry from Georgia to people who can prove they once lived in South Ossetian-controlled areas.

The government here gathers few statistics. But Gagloyeva, the retired seamstress, said her husband and two sons have been furloughed for months from the cable plant where they work.

Farmers on the Georgia side of the border say they can no longer sell fruits and vegetables in South Ossetia. The Ossetians complain of high prices for goods from Russia.

With the economy limping along, Russia serves as South Ossetia's lifeline.

"We seriously, very seriously depend on Russia's economic assistance," President Eduard Kokoity told The Associated Press in an interview, although government officials said no figures were available.

Yuri Beppiyev, South Ossetia's economics minister, who lives in a rundown house on Tskhinvali's Stalin Street, lamented: "We have more soldiers than we have farmers."

Kokoity and other officials say they are moving methodically to restore services before rebuilding homes, and controls on spending the money have further slowed the process.

His government estimates that more than 3,500 apartments and houses have been partially or fully destroyed, and Tskhinvali's infrastructure has not been retrofitted since 1956.

In the long term, South Ossetia's biggest problem may be its economy. A year after Moscow recognized the region's independence, it has little luck attracting investors.

It is not clear whether South Ossetia will continue to try to go it alone or seek some kind of merger with Russia. Kokoity said South Ossetia should develop as an independent nation, but build a relationship with Russia much like those of member states to the European Union.

Some government critics think maintaining sovereignty is crucial for their would-be nation's revival.

"We did not fight wars to give our independence away," said Timur Tskhovrebov, editor of the independent XXI Century weekly. "We're self-sustaining enough and can survive by picking mushrooms and wild berries."

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