South Ossetia: News from a Nowhere Zone

Varvara Pakhomenko
25 November 2008

In the "Atlas" shop on Kuznetsky Most in Moscow, the salesgirl looks down and says that they have no maps of Georgia left. They used to, but not any more: "You understand, this is the situation now. All those events..." When asked if this means that Georgia itself is no longer on the map, the girl smiles: "You could put it like that".

In reality, it's not all as bad as that. Georgia remains on the map, but it will be coloured differently. Radmil Shayapov, deputy head of the Russian Federal Ordnance Survey Agency, recently said that on political maps of the world published in Russia, the territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia will now be coloured differently from Georgia.

However, to be consistent, one must admit that after the war in August, places have appeared on the map which could only be given one colour - grey. The new "grey zones" are territories that are under the de facto control of no one. One of these zones is the Akhalgori region of Georgia, otherwise known as the Leningori region of South Ossetia. The territory is one and the same, but the name depends on what side of the conflict you approach it from. When I inadvertently used the name "Leningori", a Georgian diplomat commented in irritation: "There's no such place as Leningori. Lenin has been dead for so long!"

In the 1920s, when Georgia became one of the Soviet republics, this territory became part of the South Ossetian Autonomous Oblast, and the regional centre received the name of Leningori. The mountain range separating it from Tskhinvali meant that this eastern region was only formally part of South Ossetia. The only road went to the south, towards Tbilisi, and to reach Tskhinvali, you had to take the central Georgian highway. The population was 80% ethnic Georgians, and Ossetians mainly lived in mixed families. So when the city was renamed Akhalgori in the early 1990s, and almost all the territory was transferred to the administrative jurisdiction of the Mtskheti region of Georgia, no one objected: neither in Tbilisi nor Tskhinvali, which had proclaimed its independence.

In 2006, the Georgian authorities tried to resolve the South Ossetian conflict by creating an alternative pro-Tbilisi government in the republic, which had seceded.  This was headed by the former prime minister of the separatists Dmitry Sanakoyev. A Saakashvili decree restored the former South Ossetian Autonomous Oblast and the Akhalgori region was included in it, so as to increase the number of voters at the alternative elections,. The temporary administration of the Autonomous Oblast was located in the village of Kurta, six kilometres to the north of Tskhinvali and under Georgian control.  After the August conflict, the pro-Georgian officials were forced to move to the centre of Tbilisi, where they were established in the "Chess Palace".

On 16 August Russian soldiers entered the Akhalgori region, which Tbilisi itself had recognised as part of South Ossetia in the internal political game.  At the same time, local residents began to leave. Initially only a few left, but by the end of August - when television showed villages in the Gori region that had been burnt down and looted by the Ossetian militiamen following after the Russian soldiers - there were more than 2,000 refugees from Akhalgori. Almost two thirds of the population has left the region where no more than 9,000 people had lived.

With the arrival of the Russian soldiers the region was practically cut off from the rest of Georgia. On the road from Tbilisi, three checkpoints were set up - one Russian and two Ossetian, examining documents and inspecting all the passing cars. Things have been made easier for the residents since the beginning of October:  the commandant of South Ossetia, Colonel Anatoly Tarasov, managed to get the number of checkpoints reduced to two, and mass checks were stopped. But international observers and representatives of humanitarian organizations are still not allowed into the region. All the Georgian officials who we talked to before going to Akhalgori said it would be impossible to go there.

A few kilometres after the Georgian police checkpoint, we saw the new sign "Ossetia". In Akhalgori, the Ossetian flag was flying above the regional administration building. However, it turned out that the main currency here is not the ruble, but the lari. The balance was restored by the cell phone operators: we had to change the Georgian "Beeline" SIM cards in our telephones to SIM cards from the Russian "Megafon" operator.

The head of the Akhalgori orphanage Manana Makharashvili was at a loss when asked who was responsible for the orphanage: "The Georgian education ministry, I think - no one has said that we have been reassigned". There had been 73 children from various regions of Georgia at the orphanage before August, but by the end of October there were 56 left - children who had any relatives at all had been removed.  Schools started work again on 15 October, but parents are afraid to send their children there - no one trusts the armed Ossetian militia and the Russian soldiers. Not more than 150 children attend the three functioning schools in the regional centre.

Teachers at the orphanage are afraid even to think about what will happen next. Recently, Russian and Ossetian checkpoints refused to let a car with humanitarian aid through, and the current supplies will probably last for no more than a month. The gas that previously came from Georgia has now been cut off, so the orphanage has been left without heating.  In the rest of Ossetia schoolchildren are taught using Russian textbooks, but no one knows what to do if the Ossetian authorities decide to introduce Russian books in the regional schools here - almost no one speaks Russian.

No institutions in the city are functioning except the schools, orphanage and post office. The joint Georgian-Ossetian brewery which used to produce beer that was sold all over Georgia, no longer functions. Although this is a mild way of putting it: the equipment was removed by Ossetian militia and Russian soldiers in August - also a kind of international co-operation.

The Akhalgori region is actually the only place where there are many complaints of looting by the Russian soldiers. The federal troops take food and other items from abandoned houses. Local residents say that the village of Kanchaveti,  abandoned after August,  is almost completely occupied by soldiers: they have their military equipment there and the soldiers themselves live in the abandoned houses. The equipment came here directly from Tskhinvali.  Russian specialists had begun to build a road through South Ossetia before the war, but they didn't manage to finish it by August, so the remaining 30 kilometres were passable only for off-road vehicles. Now military equipment has completely ruined the road. The local people are seriously concerned that if the road to Georgia is closed, which is what has happened in other regions of South Ossetia, then they will be left without any connection to the outside world whatsoever.

In the rest of South Ossetia the Russian soldiers are seen as liberators, here they are regarded as occupation troops;  but everywhere people clearly distinguish between the politicians making the decisions and ordinary people. Local resident Muraz, who heard by telephone that we were from Moscow, drove at breakneck speed from another village to see us:

"It's great that you've come all the way from Moscow! I recently had guests from Moscow here, they were geologists."

It turned out that "recently" meant during the Soviet period. Muraz's neighbour says that people came here infrequently even from Tbilisi, until Sanakoyev was elected.  The neighbour himself, although he is Ossetian, says that he has never been to Tskhinvali - all his relatives are in Georgia.

"In the 90s, even in Georgia almost no one had heard of our Leningori, and now they talk about it everyday on television," says Muraz. "Our town will probably be renamed Putingori now. I recently heard a soldier calling it this on the telephone. There are now a lot of soldiers here: yesterday helicopters arrived again with new equipment. In August, the Russians were stationed in our village, Ikoti. I went to meet them, and asked them if they needed anything for their lads. There was a guy called Dima from Volgograd. He said he didn't need anything but cigarettes, but  he'd also like to ring home to tell his mother where he was. I bought him a carton of cigarettes and a top-up phone card, but he didn't have a Georgian SIM card. I was scared to get one in my name - what would people think about me? Now they're saying that we should get Russian passports, or we'll have difficult times ahead."

Passports are not being issued yet, but people are afraid that this will start in the spring and that young people may be drafted into the army.  They don't know whether it will be the Ossetian or Russian army, but neither option is attractive.  Colonel Tarasov told Russian human rights advocates from "Memorial" and the Demos Centre that in the Akhalgori region there had indeed been cases of the Ossetian militia threatening to drive out the local Georgian population. Although there have not been cases of arson or murder in the region, people are still leaving their homes - first they tried to get some money for their houses and property, but now they simply leave everything behind. Some go to stay with relatives, and some go to temporary shelters for refugees.

The conversation moves smoothly on from refugees to politics.  The Medvedev-Sarkozy plan for the Russian troops to return to their positions of before 6 August is not being implemented and now Russian soldiers are 60 kilometres from Tbilisi - just one hour's drive. It is a strategically advantageous place for the soldiers - a mountainous region stretching along the Georgian military road.

As we sit at the table, we raise the traditional toast for Ossetian and Georgians, "to the fallen" - to everyone who has not lived to see this day. Our host recalls with tears in his eyes that Dima from Volgograd died several days ago - he fell off an APC when drunk, and the hospital couldn't save him...

Muraz and his wife spent a long time trying to persuade us to stay the night.  All their neighbours have left, and they want someone to talk to. At least we should visit again, they said, and we would really like to come back: the area is stunningly beautiful, and the people are incredibly hospitable. But it's impossible to guess from which direction we will be able to visit next time, what flags we will see here, what SIM cards we will use in our telephones and what currency we will use to pay the driver.

And in fact, we don't even know whether any people will be living here next time. People whose main problem is that both sides want to reprint the maps.

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