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Analysis & Opinion
19.08.09 The Future Of An Enclave
By Ben Judah

A full year since Russia and Georgia fought a short but violent war over the control of South Ossetia the futures of both South Ossetia and Abkhazia are taking shape. The Abkhaz elites are optimistic about their territory becoming a Russian tourist hub and an oil producer—confident of its long-term viability, Sukhumi is forging discreet ties with Turkey. But South Ossetia is less fortunate, since there is no meaningful economic activity on its territory. Unlike Abkhazia, South Ossetia faces a future of deeper integration with Russia.

TSKHINVALI/ Nadir Bitiev is a senior advisor to the Abkhaz president, and like most of the well-to-do in Sukhumi’s political circles, he is bullish about the future. “Just over a year ago we were preparing for war and our people were poor. Now things have become easier. Life has become merrier. Tourists have started visiting and we are now beginning to develop our oil and mineral resources. The atmosphere is optimistic,” he said. And Bitiev does have a point: Rosneft, one of the Russian oil giants, has recently announced its intention to explore oil reserves off the Abkhaz coast. The company’s President Sergei Bogdanchikov announced that he expects initial seismic work to have been completed as early as in 2011.

At the coastal resort of Afon it is obvious that the locals are expecting tourists. Walkways have been repaired and new roads laid to service the Russian tourists coming on day-trips from Sochi. The place, if not exactly busy, shows signs of life, as occasional busloads of potential money-spenders pull in. “We love Russians. They just spend and spend. This place is so much better than it used to be,” said Bitiev. Maxim Gvinjia, the Abkhaz deputy foreign minister, thus explained the government’s strategy: “The first thing we have to do is simply to survive. The Sochi 2012 Olympics are coming and we are certain that we can profit from their proximity. We are keen to try and build links to the North Caucasus, such as roads and trading ties.” The forthcoming Olympics have already brought jobs to Abkhazia. Gravel from the Kodor River is being shipped to Sochi for the building effort, and there is evidence of Turkish coal mining activities taking place further inland. Abkhazia remains a largely poor and agricultural territory, albeit one with a viable independent future.

President Sergei Bagapsh commented on Sukhumi’s strategy of building ties beyond Moscow. “We have a multi-vector foreign policy. This means trying to forge ties with other countries. We have a large diaspora in Turkey and have worked closely with Turkish business and NGOs. We have had contacts with all levels of government,” he told Russia Profile. Other Abkhaz officials discreetly confirmed a meeting with the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan. “Abkhazia is important to Turkey and Turkey to Abkhazia because of the large Abkhaz and Circassian diaspora in Turkey (three million plus), and the presence of many of these people in the upper reaches of the government and especially the military and security communities. If Abkhazia makes it as an independent country, and not just a Russian-backed ‘Tuva,’ it will be because of Turkey more than anything else,” said Paul Goble, a former CIA analyst and an expert on Eurasia.

But south of Sukhumi Abkhazia has an uglier face. The once prosperous town of Ochamchiere is mostly deserted, and the road to the Gali region is lined with abandoned Georgian villages that are slowly being reclaimed by nature. Vladimir Putin’s recent announcement that Russia will be installing two more bases in Abkhazia and increasing the troop number to over 3,600 does not appear to promise the calm the Abkhaz economy so desperately needs. Despite numerous positive economic signs, this enclave remains at the mercy of Russia’s unstable relationship with Georgia.

Those less fortunate

The South Ossetian front-line snakes its way through fields and often takes the form of trenches barely a few minutes south of Tskhinvali. Davit Sanokoyev, the South Ossetian ombudsman for human rights, said that living next to an impassable frontline is difficult for the locals. “There used to be a market where we could trade and have contact with the Georgians. But when Mikheil Saakashvili ordered it be closed down, the farmers could no longer sell much of their produce. It is extremely hard to make a living like this.” With its back to some of the highest parts of the Caucasian mountain range, trading on a local level cannot be replicated by dealings with Russia. The nearest city, Vladikavkaz, is almost five hours away, and few can afford the petrol or own a vehicle.

The village of Khetagurovo, within eye-shot of the trenches, is barely there. Most homes have been wrecked and hardly any inhabitants remain. “This is what twenty years of a blockade and four wars look like,” said Sanokoyev. Poverty and isolation eat away at the enclave’s population. Following last summer’s war, many refugees chose to remain in North Ossetia, and the presence of merely a thousand people at the celebrations meant to mark the conflict’s anniversary makes one wonder whether the population of Tskhinvali may now be as low as some analysts have suggested—perhaps as little as 15,000 people.

Like any other South Ossetian, Sanokoyev has spent the past twenty years living in a wholly militarized society. “I was often at the frontline myself. I would take off this suit and put my uniform straight on. That’s life here,” he said. Touring Tskhinvali, it is difficult to find a young man who is not wearing a militia uniform. The few remaining shops sell just the bare essentials. Restaurants and cafes are nowhere to be found. “I really want to bring up my children here,” said Sanokoyev. His face looked visibly pained as he tried to picture an economic tomorrow. “We could sell mineral waters and maybe there are resources in the mountains that could be exploited.”

But the bureaucrats from the local administration painted a less promising picture. There are constant power outages, water shortages, virtually non-existent education services and a lack of medical necessities. Vera, 36, works for the government and lives with her sister and mother in a small apartment. They bathe by pouring jugs of water over their heads. The view from their window reveals ruins and mud tracks. “I am in charge of tackling people’s complaints...and the atmosphere is really very negative,” she said. It is no surprise that wild dogs seem to outnumber the children on the streets.

Yet President Eduard Kokoity puts on a brave face. “Today we are rebuilding wholly destroyed houses, and the city of Moscow has paid for the building of a whole new district. We have a whole plan worked out to build new economic sites, but over 70 percent of housing was damaged during the Georgian aggression. We have just started to address this,” he told Russia Profile. Unlike Abkhaz officials, Kokoity speaks of Russia in glowing terms. “We can only thank Russia for this truly remarkable humanitarian act and we hope to develop deeper ties with Russia on all levels,” he said.

But the desolation speaks for itself. Without the reopening of the border with Georgia and serious investment and re-skilling of the kind only the EU has the capacity to provide it seems unlikely that South Ossetia can acquire the qualities of viability that Abkhazia possesses. With neither Moscow nor Tbilisi interested in anything more than a cease-fire, ordinary South Ossetians appear doomed to continue losing the geo-political struggle currently taking place on their doorstep.
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