Page last updated at 11:12 GMT, Thursday, 24 January 2008

Caucasus on alert over Kosovo

By Neil Arun
BBC News, Tskhinvali

A straight road separates two sheds occupied by soldiers. The men on one side are Georgian, the men on the other side are Russian.

Georgian troops at a checkpoint
Georgian troops face Russian soldiers - and freezing weather

The space between them is no-man's land - one mile of barren tarmac, bracketed by barriers.

Though passports may be presented at both checkpoints, this is no official frontier.

It is, rather, a frozen frontline, where the unfinished business of secession still sometimes sparks gunfights.

Beyond the Russian checkpoint lies the town of Tskhinvali, the seat of South Ossetia's separatist government.

For more than 15 years, the South Ossetians have been saying they are independent of Georgia. No other country sees them that way, though Moscow has sent aid and troops to patrol the de facto border with Georgia.

Although Georgia vows to recover the region, any major military manoeuvre would invite a direct confrontation with Russian troops.

The result is a stalemate that has survived, skirmishes aside, for more than a decade.

Now however, the creation of a new nation far away is threatening to rekindle conflict in the Caucasus.

Map of South Ossetia
Population: About 70,000
Capital: Tskhinvali
Major languages: Ossetian, Georgian, Russian
Major religion: Orthodox Christianity
Currency: Russian rouble, Georgian lari

The Serbian province of Kosovo is widely expected to declare independence in the coming weeks.

Though officially still part of Serbia, Kosovo has been administered by the UN since a 1999 Nato bombing campaign ejected Serb forces accused of a brutal crackdown on ethnic Albanian separatism.

The province's ethnic Albanian majority now wants independence. Their demand has the conditional backing of the US and EU, but is opposed by Serbia and its traditional ally, Russia.

Moscow has warned that independence for Kosovo could have a domino effect on breakaway regions of the former Soviet Union.

If the West recognises Kosovo, some Russian politicians say they could respond by offering recognition to allies in other "frozen conflicts", particularly the Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

A question of precedent

As fellow separatists, the South Ossetians admit Kosovo's drive for sovereignty could also work in their favour.

But they cannot afford to be too enthusiastic about it. Moscow opposes Kosovan independence and the South Ossetians are careful not to contradict the nation on which they rely so heavily.

Murat Djioev
Mr Djioev says South Ossetia wants nothing less than independence

South Ossetian "foreign minister" Murat Djioev says he expects independence for Kosovo - if achieved - to boost his government's quest for recognition.

A compact man with a bushy moustache, he speaks proudly of his government but is bitter about the world's refusal to work with it.

"If the Western powers recognise Kosovo, it will set an example for unrecognised republics elsewhere," he says.

"If other countries then say they still don't recognise us, we will say it is a double standard."

However, Mr Djioev also downplays the similarities between Kosovo and South Ossetia, arguing that his government's claim to independence has greater legitimacy.

"We've had our own independent state for 18 years and we've had our own path to independence. We're not looking at Kosovo's precedent when we're talking about South Ossetia," he says.

And he avoids the suggestion that he is advocating independence for Kosovo - a stance that would place him at odds with Moscow.

Damaged building in Kurta, a Georgian-held village in South Ossetia
Buildings in the region still bear the scars of fighting

Ultimately, he says, what happens to Kosovans "is their own business".

"If we are trying to get independence ourselves, we cannot say any other people cannot get independence."

Dina Alborova, who works for a non-governmental agency in Tskhinvali, has visited Kosovo.

She says she is broadly in favour of independence for Kosovo, "because most people I met there were in favour of it".

"We don't understand why the international community says yes to Kosovo and no to us. They say it won't be a precedent, but I believe it will."

Rival administration

A South Ossetian leader who is backed by Georgia also rejects the comparison with Kosovo - but for reasons different from Mr Djioev's.

"The international community at large is prepared to recognise Kosovo's independence," says Dmitry Sanakoev, the head of a group of enclaves within South Ossetia that remain under Georgian control.

Dmitry Sanakoev
Dmitry Sanakoev has the backing of the government in Tbilisi

"If South Ossetia declared independence, only Russia would recognise it. The international community would have nothing to do with it."

Mr Sanakoev says recognition from Russia would turn South Ossetia into the local equivalent of northern Cyprus - a region only recognised as a state by its sponsor, Turkey.

Georgians fear a South Ossetia recognised only by Russia could effectively become an extension of it.

Many South Ossetians already have dual Georgian-Russian citizenship, much to Georgia's anger.

For the time being, Mr Sanakoev is seeking to build a rival administration in the parts of South Ossetia that remain under Georgian control.

He is a burly man, with an expansive manner - a former fighter and politician from Tskhvinvali who crossed the frontline.

His new, heavily-guarded office is only a few kilometres from his old home.

Through him, the government in Tbilisi hopes to entice other South Ossetians to join Georgia.

Total independence

In Tskhinvali, however, Mr Sanakoev is seen as a traitor and his administration a sham. Events in Kosovo are unlikely to soften this view.

South Ossetian special forces
South Ossetian fighters have been in clashes with Georgian troops

Georgia has said South Ossetia can have broad autonomy, as long as it cedes control of its foreign policy and borders to Tbilisi - an offer similar to that made by Serbia in relation to Kosovo.

But as with Kosovo, so with South Ossetia - the separatists want nothing short of total independence.

"We cannot go back to the past," says "foreign minister" Djioev. "That's impossible."

Yet there is a chapter from South Ossetia's history that Mr Djioev still yearns for. Asked if he regrets the collapse of communism, he grows wistful.

"Under the Soviet Union, we had peace and stability," he says. "Its break-up brought us only war and suffering. How can that be a good thing?"

Q&A: Kosovo's future
09 Jan 08 |  Europe
Kosovo Serbs face hard choices
14 Mar 07 |  Europe
Regions and territories: South Ossetia
18 Dec 07 |  Country profiles

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