South Ossetia – A Land Of No Crossroads

checkpoint-bilboard.JPG“The Georgians have built a funfair in the neighbouring village, I can see the ferris wheel from my balcony”, says 20 year old Alik Gassiev.

There are also rumours of a hotel, a fitness centre and a swimming pool being built on the nearby village. In any case, there’s bigger certainty about the brand new cinema, this one very close to Alik’s house.

But Alik lives in Tskhinval, the capital city of the non recognised state of South Ossetia, and the only cinema in the area is in Tamarasheni, one of the handful of villages still under Georgian control within South Ossetia. Both Tskhinval and Tamarasheni are more than just close to each other: it’s as simple as a checkpoint blocking Stalin Street, Tskhinval’s main avenue.

The South Ossetian soldiers in grey camouflage won’t lift the barrier unless you are a member of the Russian peacekeeping troops, or you happen to live in the couple of houses that lay today in no man’s land. Looking is not forbidden, though, so you can see the straight road passing the Russians and the Georgians’ post. You can even spot that big yellow crane on the other side, and try to figure out what’s the whole construction thing about. That’s Tamarasheni: just at the throw of a stone, but still a world apart. The checkpoint will prevent Alik from going to the cinema today and there won’t be any Georgian couples strolling along Stalin Street either. Little wonder here, as it’s been like that for the last 15 years.

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Today, both communities live divided by a number checkpoints like that one at Stalina, but also by a complex web of roads. Not content with the physical obstacles, they even have different time zones: Moscow’s one for the Ossetians, and Tbilisi’s for the Georgians. If there’s ever a chance to go to the cinema in Tamarasheni, it will be wise to remember that it’s always an hour later on the other side of the checkpoint.

With the fall of the Soviet Empire in 1991, Georgia, as well as many other republics from Estonia to Tajikistan, formally declared its independence from the Soviet Union. “Georgia for the Georgians” was Zviad Gamsakhurdia’s slogan, Georgia’s first president. The Ossetians didn’t fancy the idea of being citizens of a country whose president considered them as “newcomers”. Besides, they would be split from their fellow North Ossetians, who have remained until today as part of Russia. War erupted when South Ossetia broke away from Georgia with a cost of thousands of lives a displaced. Today the conflict is an open sore in relations between Georgia’s Western-backed government and its neighbour Russia. Moscow has peacekeeping troops in both Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and Tbilisi accuses them of siding with the separatists.

Re-elected last January, Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili has a two-pronged approach. In a direct challenge to South Ossetian president Eduard Kokoiti, he has set up a rival government, led by Dimitry Sanakoyev, a former independentist prime minister who switched sides. At the same time, Saakashvili is funnelling large sums of cash into the cluster of villages inside South Ossetia that remain under Tbilisi’s control. “There’s a battle for hearts and minds going on” he says, very often.

“Tbilisi is making huge investments as the funfair and the cinema in the villages are under their control”, tells Alik “They want to split South Ossetian society, but I’m sure such a thing will never happen”.

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The last episode in Tbilisi’s “charm offensive” was a gig last October by Boney M’s former member, Marcia Barret. As many of the improvements going on are in the handful of Georgian villages of South Ossetia, the concert also took place in Tamarasheni. Ms Barrett admitted there that she didn’t know much about the situation in South Ossetia, but that she felt “honoured to be invited to a peace festival”.

Needless to say, the Ossetians couldn’t get there. The train has been out of work for more than a decade, and checkpoints as well as “mono-ethnic” roads are all built on purpose. Alik’s help is most welcome when it comes to understanding the intricacies of South Ossetian roads. He uses a map, one of those which links both North and South Ossetia, and that are so popular in Tskhinval.

“The Trans-Caucasus highway built in the eighties to link Tbilisi with Moscow, is now closed, as it criss-crosses Georgian and Ossetian villages”, Alik says. “We fully depend on the Russian supplies we get from North Ossetia, so we built a by-pass road northwards on the west of the republic. The Georgians have built their own one on the east side that goes south towards Tbilisi”.

Such is South Ossetia today; that buildings are in a state of crumbling dereliction, where neighbours use different stairs and go out at different hours, with the sole purpose of not meeting each other.

tskhinval2.JPGFrom Stalina to Moscow
But there’s definitely much more than just a checkpoint to Tskhinval’s main avenue. You could walk from there along its two kilometres of avenue to stop at the bollards that mark the end of the stroll. Nonetheless, you should spend some time at the theatre square, Tskhinval’s very centre. The place owes its name to the theatre building, today roofless due to a recent fire. Next to it lays the Iriston hotel, the only hotel in the city. Floors one and three are visibly abandoned, so any tourist paying the visit to Tskhinval is supposed to sleep on the second floor. And that’s also where the city’s only internet café is, so despite the lack of comfort, the occasional visitor will still have the chance to check his e-mail while still in his slippers.

But not every spot in the centre is in a state of crumbling dereliction. There’s a nice park devoted to Kosta Khetagurov, the father of Ossetian literature, which also hosts a statue of him handsomely dressed in a cherkesska. The Georgians beheaded the statue during the nineties war, but the first man to write poetry in the Ossetian language eventually got his head back when the conflict was over; for sure, a much easier and cheaper task than giving the theatre a new roof.

Theatre square is where the locals of all ages meet, mainly around the circular Soviet-styled modernist fountain covered by a colourful mosaic. There’s no water running from it but the teenagers sitting on its edge are far more concerned about new tones for their mobile phones. Just nearby, a handful of pensioners comment on the fire interchange last week at the checkpoint between Georgia and South Ossetia, just 15 minutes’ walk from here. That is, in fact, the main conversation in the area as the cluster of concrete governmental buildings is just on the other side of the road. Next to them stands an imposing billboard displaying a picture from Independence Day’s celebrations: It’s a very interesting parade indeed, the participants, dressed in medieval costumes, are riding horses representing the Alans. Both north and south Ossetians proudly claim their ancestry; they call their land “Alania” and, what is more, they still keep this old Sarmatian tribe’s language alive: a lingo close to Kurdish and Farsi, which has survived as a real oddity in the middle of the Caucasus.

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The knights in the billboard are carrying the three striped Ossetian flag (white, red and yellow), but also the Russian one. In fact, it’s difficult to find an Ossetian flag without a Russian one escorting it in South Ossetia. Both of them wave together in governmental buildings, the national bank, the post office, and even in some of those tiny shops where you can buy almost anything; from a screw to an onion; the shops they call magazin across the whole Soviet world.

But if there’s been a day where both flags were almost as ubiquitous as on Independence Day, that was December the 2nd, the Election Day for the Parliament in Moscow. For yes, South Ossetia is officially Georgian land, but almost every South Ossetian holds a Russian passport. It gives them the chance to travel north and, of course, to vote too. Vladimir Putin’s party got an overwhelming victory among the South Ossetians who voted at the Russian peacekeepers’ compound. The huge numbers of posters with the former KGB leader’s face on Tskhinval’s walls were telling enough about locals’ vote intentions.

“Total independence is a utopia for us”, tells deputy minister of foreign affairs Teymuraz Dzodziev. “Our main goal is independence from Georgia, to join North Ossetians within the Russian Federation” explains a young bearded man in unaccented English. “We don’t suffer the embargo imposed to Georgians by Moscow, so we get all our supplies, our pensions… almost everything from Russia. Besides, almost every family here has a relative working in the north that helps to counterbalance the low local salaries. Those who can afford it have a son studying at the University of Vladikavkaz (North Ossetia’s capital city). If the Roki tunnel ever collapses, we can all say “bye bye” to South Ossetia”, admits the young vice minister.

If Russia is South Ossetia’s oxygen ballot, then the Roki tunnel is doubtless its “snorkel”: a 3.5km-long work of engineering that sections the High Caucasus range and connects both North and South Ossetia at an altitude of 3000m. Its flow of people, money and supplies is diverted afterwards to the by-pass road, of course.

tskhinval4.jpgMixed couples
A sheepskin hangs from a tree next to Khetagurovo’s remarkable Georgian church, yet another reminder of how present the Pagan element is in the Caucasus. Despite somebody’s efforts to clear up the Georgian inscriptions on the temple’s solid stone walls, a good observer will still spot their traces. On the contrary, the hundreds of black graves on the snowy cemetery nearby are difficult to miss. The photographs of the deceased, many of them soldiers holding a Kalashnikov and a fiery look have been engraved on basalt. Around them, bottles of wine and vodka lie half emptied amidst the flowers left for the departed. The Ossetians might not be “100% Caucasian” for their neighbours’ standards but their graveyards hardly differ from those all over Georgia.

A handful of villagers gather on the strip of land that functions as the main square here, right in front of Khetagurovo’s only magazin. A pleasant chat under the winter sun, occasionally interrupted by an old Lada or a bus coming from the north. Unfortunately, none of those breaks the Vladikavkaz-Tskhinval journey here

“During Soviet times there was work for everybody. We wouldn’t care about anything”, says Vladimir Tarasov, a regular assistant to Khetagurovo’s busiest spot. “I never thought I’d have to struggle to survive after retiring. If it weren’t for the pension I get from Russia, I would starve to death”.

“Ossetians and Georgians lived together before”, adds Konstantin, Vladimir’s neighbour, “We would even marry each other. Actually, there were lots of mixed couples.”

It’s Saturday but the kids of Khetagurovo, are at school, the same as everybody their age in South Ossetia. A wide range of Soviet symbols still hang from the school’s walls: red stars, black and white photographs of the local heroes, and many other reminders of the Great Patriotic War (WW II). Only the South Ossetian hymn on a poster reminds us that there’s no Soviet Union any more, despite the disturbing presence of Stalin on a big canvas.

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A bell marks the end of today’s classes and dozens of kids walk home under the threatening look of the Soviet leader. None of them witnessed Soviet times, not even its last years. Nonetheless, they all know that the man who bet the Fascists was an Ossetian, “despite her mother being a Georgian”.

“And how did Stalin’s parents get to meet each other?” may have asked one of these kids during today’s classes.

The same question might have been raised in the neighbouring Georgian village. Classes were over exactly an hour ago there.

Author – Karlos Zurutuza

  4 comments for “South Ossetia – A Land Of No Crossroads

  1. Baran
    May 19, 2008 at 1:06 pm

    I wanted to pay the visit to SO last year but unfortunately all my plans went ashtray.
    Enjoyed your piece very much!

  2. August 9, 2008 at 8:17 am

    This piece illustrates a statu quo that is no longer such

  3. Zemfira. Puzniak
    March 16, 2012 at 2:03 pm

    My Name is Zemfira and my mother resides in an apartment off Stalin Street,Tskhinvali. I was told the Country and City Telephone Codes were changed by the Russian Federation. I reside in the United States and have been trying to call my Mom but can’t get through. Could you tell me what the new Telephone Codes are when calling from the United States. Thank You. Your Help will be very appreciated.

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