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South Ossetia Looking Much Like a Failed State

A recent claim that Russia is building a sophisticated radar surveillance station somewhere in South Ossetia remains unconfirmed, but it indicates how little is known about the territory that was the focus of the Georgia-Russia war almost two years ago. Despite being recognized by Moscow as an independent state after the war, South Ossetia still has no autonomous means of survival. According to some observers, its population could now be as low as 20,000 after the Georgians who used to live in what was once an ethnically mixed area were forced to flee during and after the war.

A report published earlier this month by the International Crisis Group paints a gloomy picture of life in this tiny, isolated region. Post-war reconstruction efforts funded by the Kremlin have rehabilitated official buildings and schools, but most private homes that were damaged in the war have remained untouched amid claims that renovation funds have been embezzled by local officials. As a result, some South Ossetians are living in empty train cars.

Moreover, the agricultural sector is failing, and this fertile but backward region can’t fulfill its own demand. Industry is virtually nonexistent, and even the black economy has suffered since the war. Medical services and education remain poor. Anyone who questions the authorities risks being labeled a traitor.

The official view from Georgia is that South Ossetia is an occupied territory and ruled by a Russian-imposed puppet regime headed by Eduard Kokoity, a former wrestling champion. Most Georgians agree with this view and retain a strong emotional attachment to the region, hoping that someday their Ossetian “brothers” will realize their mistake and reunite with the historic motherland.

But even before Georgia sent its tanks into Tskhinvali in August 2008, many Ossetians despised the Tbilisi government because of previous botched attempts to reassert control. As the Russian military continues to entrench itself in South Ossetia, a return to Georgian rule becomes less likely with each passing day.

In fact, the Russian army appears to be the only thing that is thriving in South Ossetia, the International Crisis Group report suggests, pointing to a potential future as bleak as the present: “Both local and Russian analysts agree that if the local economy does not develop, the region will in effect turn into a Russian garrison.”

Matthew Collin is a journalist based in Tbilisi.

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