Travels in the Former Soviet Union

"Why Can't We Live Together?"
Notes from different corners of the world.
May 19 2008 2:56 PM

Travels in the Former Soviet Union

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TSKHINVALI, South Ossetia—The first time I enter Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia, the hotel staff immediately calls the police. They tell me that no one can process my journalist accreditation until Wednesday. It is a Sunday afternoon, and the following Tuesday is the May Day holiday, making it a four-day weekend. Can't I just stay until then and see the town as a tourist, I ask? Nope. So about 20 minutes after I arrive, the police drive me back to the border with Georgia proper and tell me to try again later. I come back on Wednesday and find that the accreditation process consists of writing my name in a book and filling out a small piece of paper that I am told to carry with me everywhere I go. It takes about a minute.

I'm visiting South Ossetia as part of a tour across the southern edge of the former Soviet Union, looking at the wildly different directions the newly independent countries have taken since 1991. In the case of South Ossetia, a self-proclaimed independent country that is, in fact, neither independent nor a country, "nowhere" is probably the best way to describe where it's gone. It's perhaps the closest you can get today to experiencing the old Soviet Union, as well as a good place to get the flavor of a good old-fashioned, Cold-War-style proxy war between the United States and Russia. South Ossetia broke away from Georgia after a chaotic 18-month war that killed 1,000 (of a population of 60,000) between 1990 and 1992. Today, South Ossetia is propped up by Russia: Moscow pays government salaries and provides the bulk of the peacekeeping forces. Billboards around Tskhinvali show Vladimir Putin with the legend "Our President." (This is during the summer of 2007. The billboards were later replaced with signs featuring new President Dmitry Medvedev that read, "The Russian Bear Is the Friend of the Snow Leopard," leopards being a symbol of the Ossetian nation.) Meanwhile, in Georgia proper, the United States is conducting an extensive training program for the Georgian military. Of course, Washington has bigger fish to fry than South Ossetia—it's training the Georgians to serve in Iraq, where the tiny ex-Soviet country is the highest per-capita contributor of troops, with about 2,000 in the sandbox.

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When I finally make it to Tskhinvali, I meet with the head of the press office, Irina Gagloeva, and she asks me whom I want to talk to. I give her the list of government officials I'd like to interview. The president? He's in Moscow. The prime minister? Likewise. The minister of defense or the chief of the armed forces? Absolutely impossible to talk to anyone about anything military, she says. Finally, we set up meetings with the foreign minister and the deputy prime minister. That shouldn't take very long, she says, so you can leave tomorrow. I tell her I also want time to talk to people outside the government—journalists, academics, ordinary people—and to get the flavor of South Ossetia. I was hoping to stay until Sunday, a four-day trip. No, she says. Finally, she relents and lets me stay until Saturday. "Saturday, 5 p.m., Joshua goodbye." She also forbids me to visit Kurta, where a rival government advocating reintegration with Georgia established itself last year. It's clear that the government does not want journalists roaming around South Ossetia.

That afternoon, I set out to walk around town and take some photos. My first subject is a small group of palm trees that were given to the government of South Ossetia by Abkhazia, its sister breakaway territory. A policeman, who looks about 16, comes over and asks for my passport and accreditation. Everything checks out, and he lets me go. But a few minutes later, I see a picturesque abandoned shop with two flags flying out front—South Ossetian and Russian. The South Ossetian flag is almost never seen here without a Russian flag alongside. I snap a picture, and another policeman comes up and asks to see the last photo I took. I figure he thinks I had taken one of a policeman or some other forbidden subject, so I confidently show him the photo of the shop. "Come with me," he says, and we get in his Lada Niva jeep and drive to the nearby police station. "Is there a problem with the photo?" I ask. "Yes, there's a problem." At the police station, I wait on a ratty couch for about an hour, until two officials from the foreign ministry arrive. They drive me back to the hotel and tell me to stay there until morning. But I haven't eaten dinner, and there is no restaurant in the hotel, I protest. One relents and says I can go out to eat. But nothing more, and I must be back at the hotel by 9:30. They tell the receptionist to call the police if I'm not back. What's the problem? I ask again. "People might think you're a spy," one of them tells me. This is all for my safety, he explains. What sort of dangers are out there in Tskhinvali? I ask. "Maybe Georgians would attack you and blame us," he says. I never find out why they were freaked out by the photo.

The next day, I meet with Deputy Prime Minister Boris Chochiev. When I tell him about my experiences with the police, he looks concerned and says he will investigate. Then he adds: "You know, people don't trust foreign journalists. The international journalists who travel from Georgia are usually following someone's orders." Whose orders? "The orders of those who support Georgia. They don't want true information; they want to represent us as just a small bunch of separatists that don't want to live with Georgia. But why don't we want to live with Georgia? This is what they don't want to write."

Chochiev, a jovial man with a bushy mustache, is also a historian, and he gives me two books that he wrote on this very subject: South Ossetia: A Chronicle of the Events of the Georgian Aggression 1988-1992 and Memories of a Nation: Victims of Georgia's Aggressive Policy Against South Ossetia.

Ossetians say they have nothing in common with Georgia and that South Ossetia is an artificial creation thrown together by ethnic Georgian Bolsheviks who wanted to separate and weaken the Ossetian nation. (A much larger portion of the Ossetian people lives in North Ossetia, a part of Russia just across the Caucasus mountains from South Ossetia.) They say that throughout the Soviet era, Georgia populated South Ossetia with ethnic Georgians and restricted the use of the Ossetian language.

South Ossetia now appears to be a police state. Close to half the men I see on the street are police or military, and many men not in uniform openly wear pistols. Many of the police are engaged in make-work duties, it appears (including monitoring foreign journalists). There is a large detachment on the top floor of my hotel, allegedly providing security for the hotel (although I seem to be the only guest), and when some rowdy teenagers disrupt a concert celebrating Victory Day, the anniversary of the Soviet victory over Germany in World War II, a dozen or so police, including OMON forces (comparable to a SWAT team) are there to intercede.

There are very few shops and little activity on the streets, even for a town of 40,000—but especially for the capital of a would-be independent republic. The biggest industry besides the security apparatus, which is almost all funded from Moscow, is subsistence farming.

People here blame the United States for providing military support to Georgia and emboldening Tbilisi to act against South Ossetia, and there is no ambivalence about the relationship with Moscow. Russia and Ossetia have been military allies since at least the 19th century. Moscow has traditionally relied on its fellow Christian Ossetians against the many Muslim nations in the Caucasus as well as against the independent-minded Georgians.

In 2001, the speaker of the South Ossetian parliament wrote a letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin asking him to annex the country. Foreign Minister Murat Djioev tells me that joining Russia is also his desire, but independence is the first step on that path. For now, though, Russia seems satisfied to exercise de facto control over South Ossetia. It has given Russian passports to South Ossetians—who can't travel on their South Ossetian passports—and now 96 percent of South Ossetians are Russian citizens. I ask Djioev about the Russian flags and Putin billboards around town. "I want us to be part of Russia, but I understand this won't happen quickly. As Russian citizens, we want to demonstrate that the Russian flag is our flag and Putin is our president," he says. Several top officials, including the minister of defense and the head of the security service, are Russians. Djioev makes no apologies for it. "When it's necessary to invite a Russian specialist here, we'll do it. In San Marino, many of the top officials are Italians, and nobody criticizes them for it," he says. (Russia will, in 2008, move to formalize ties with South Ossetia as well as Abkhazia, further ratcheting up tensions with Georgia.)

One night at the Café Farn, where I had gotten to know many of the regulars, a burly, jolly, and extremely drunken man comes over. "He's spetsnaz"—a special-forces soldier—one of my friends at the table tells me. "Russian or South Ossetian spetsnaz?" I ask. "Russian," he says, to the visible discomfort of the other people at the table. "Well, Russian and South Ossetian," he says. "But never mind," he adds and pours a round of vodka shots.

South Ossetia's position has lately become more precarious. Dmitri Sanakoev, a former South Ossetian defense minister and veteran of the 1990-92 war, changed sides, and in 2006 he was elected president of South Ossetia in an "alternative" poll organized by a few ethnic Georgian villages in South Ossetia. He now runs a separatist state within this separatist state, advocating reintegration with Georgia from a village just on the outskirts of Tskhinvali. It is widely assumed in South Ossetia that Sanakoev changed sides only because the Georgian government offered to pay off his considerable gambling debts.

The Georgian government initially held Sanakoev at arm's length, but it is now cooperating with him in increasingly high-profile ways. During my visit, several members of the Georgian parliament went to Kurta, his capital, for a meeting and photo-op with the government there.

A crew from South Ossetian state television covered the event, and they invited along me and Zarina, a 21-year-old assistant press officer for the South Ossetian government. Zarina has already given me the South Ossetian nationalist party line: Georgians hate Ossetians and denied everything to Ossetians under communism. They killed Ossetian children in the war. The hypercarbonated Ossetian mineral water is far better than the famed Georgian Borjomi. Oh, and the Internet is bad in South Ossetia because Georgians interfere with it.

The Kurta government turns on the charm for the visitors from Tskhinvali. While we wait for the parliamentarians to arrive, a series of government staffers comes over to the Tskhinvali visitors to make friendly small talk and offer us coffee. One sixtysomething woman, wearing an evening dress with a plunging neckline, comes over to us. Soon she is crying theatrically: "Why can't we live together? Why do we have to be divided," she says, sobbing.

The Kurta prime minister introduces himself, flashing a big smile of gold teeth. "Welcome to Kurta, please come anytime!" he says and gives each of us his business card, which features the same symbol the Tskhinvali government uses, but in the Georgian language as well as Ossetian and Russian.

Zarina is unimpressed with the prime minister and the rest of the Kurta hospitality. "If someone is smiling at you, and inside you know he hates you, what can you think?" she asks after he leaves. "He is the prime minister of four villages," she adds with as much disdain as she can muster. She seems unaware of the irony of these words coming from a representative of a government that rules over 60,000 people but has a president and a foreign ministry.

We notice that the podium flies a South Ossetian flag next to a Georgian flag. Zarina, again, is appalled. "Our people cannot tolerate that the Georgian flag and the South Ossetian flag are together after this genocide, after they killed little children," she says.

It is tempting to dismiss this as hysteria from a government apparatchik, but the emotion Ossetians feel about the war is real. After my interview with Chochiev, I went to get lunch at the Café Farn. When my new friends saw Memories of a Nation, they somberly paged through, looking for photos of friends and family who had been killed. After all, 1,000 people in such a small community is a lot, and the war touched everyone here. Zarina tells me that as a 5-year-old, she lived in nearby Gori, where her father was stationed as a Soviet army officer. She remembers Georgian soldiers breaking into the barracks and forcing the family out because they were ethnic Ossetians. They fled to Tskhinvali. "I didn't understand anything, but I was so scared," she says.

Eventually, the parliamentarians arrive, meet, and have a short press conference. Then the charm offensive resumes, and the Kurta government press officers invite the Tskhinvali visitors to the cafeteria for lunch. The Tskhinvalians are mortified at the prospect of breaking bread with the enemy, torn between two Caucasian imperatives: hospitality and their nation. The Kurta officials literally  have to drag them by the crooks of their elbows into the cafeteria, and the Tskhinvalians give in. A bottle of homemade wine is produced. "Let's toast! No politics, just to us, all of us," one of the Kurtans proposes.

We eat as quickly as we can, make awkward conversation, and say our goodbyes. I ask Zarina what she thinks of it all. "They are monsters," she says.

Joshua Kucera is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.

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