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Moscow Diary: Caucasus cauldron

South Ossetia was defiantly pro-Moscow long before Russian troops ousted Georgian forces from the region, the BBC's James Rodgers says. His diary is published fortnightly.

STAYING ON STALIN STREET

The dancers are coming to town. The bagpipers are not.

"Moscow! Thank you for the help!" says the advertising hoarding on my way to work. A poster near the Kremlin shows a ribbon in the colours of the Russian flag entwined with another in South Ossetian colours. Outside my metro station there is an advertisement for the forthcoming performance of an Ossetian dance troupe.

A woman next to a poster depicting Russia's flag and state emblem in Tskhinvali, S Ossetia
Many South Ossetians want their region to be part of Russia

In November 2006 I spent a week on Stalin Street. There aren't many Stalin Streets left. This one was in Tskhinvali, the regional capital of South Ossetia. I was there to cover the territory's referendum on independence from Georgia.

The result was a massive yes. At the time, no one really paid any attention. Even Russia said only that people should take notice. That was the only hint that less than two years later Moscow would recognise South Ossetia's independence.

I was staying in a private house on Stalin Street. The South Ossetian authorities had found accommodation for visiting journalists with local families. It gave us an unusual opportunity to talk to our hosts at greater length than any interview would have allowed.

After my visit to South Ossetia, I spent the next couple of days with the Georgian army. I was reporting on their prospects for Nato membership.

Memories of that trip have returned to me countless times since the conflict started. South Ossetia had in effect been separate from the rest of the country since a war in the early 1990s. That assignment gave me a rare glimpse of both sides.

The Russians of today are less isolated than any previous generation

Perhaps you too live in a part of the world where you are cut off from your neighbours. My overall impression there was how little they understood of each other.

My hosts in South Ossetia remembered with horror the fighting with Georgian government troops. Nothing, they said, would ever induce them to rejoin Georgia.

The Georgians I spoke to seemed convinced that South Ossetia would return once its people saw the economic benefits of President Mikhail Saakashvili's reforms.

ISOLATION OR ARMS RACE?

South Ossetia was isolated from the rest of Georgia by more than just a checkpoint. Tbilisi was making every effort to stress its ties with the West. Outside Gori, there was a huge poster showing Mr Saakashvili shaking hands with US President George W Bush. In South Ossetia, the main face looking down from the billboards was Vladimir Putin's.

Russian tanks in Tskhinvali, S Ossetia, 30 Aug 08
Russia plans to keep 3,800 troops in South Ossetia

It seems now like an omen of the conflict which would send Russian troops into battle against the forces of a close ally of Washington.

Here in Moscow, there's a strong sense that Russia did the right thing, and that the West refuses to understand that. There does seem, though, to be a creeping concern about the possible longer term consequences.

President Dmitry Medvedev conceded on Monday that Russia's financial markets had suffered as a result of the conflict - but he insisted that the Russian economy was in good shape, and there would be no change in policy. He stressed that Russia was not seeking "isolation, or, God forbid, an arms race".

Aside from the nervousness of some investors, signs of isolation so far have been few.

The British government has stopped a military pipe band from attending a festival in Moscow. Maybe not very significant in itself, but taken together with the closure earlier this year of the British Council offices outside Moscow, it shows that parts of the relationship not directly linked to politics are suffering too.

Russia has been cut off from the West for long periods of its history. It has gone through stages both of welcoming outside influence, and rejecting it.

The Russians of today are less isolated than any previous generation. Economic ties bind Russia to the rest of the world as never before. Unprecedented numbers have the chance to travel abroad. They have access to foreign movies and other media. The internet means that the government could not change that even if it wanted to.

That will not stop diplomatic relations continuing to worsen, but it might be a factor in averting a new cold war.

I wonder what my hosts on Stalin Street think.


Your comments

I wait in anticipation every fortnight for the Moscow diary and with the recent events even more so. I feel sometimes there are far too many Sovietologists in the US government still clinging to the past of Soviet days. The USSR has gone and now Russia exists and is starting to flex its wings after the humiliation and the doldrums of the 90s. The US and the West seem to be so very tunnel visioned. Can you imagine the response if Russia signed similar deals with Mexico and Venezuela as the US has done with Poland and is proposing to do with Georgia and the Ukraine? It is inevitable that one would always want to look after one's own back yard.
Anton Conlon, Milan, Italy

The South Osetian Referendum looks like the Communist elections we were forced to attend during the Soviet years. The Georgians were driven out from the originally Georgian territory Samachablo (South Osetia, as Russians and Osetians love to call it) years before so the referendum was only held for Osetians. The conclusion: the referendum is totally subjective. And I do not think it counts.
Nino Gonjilashvili, Tbilisi, Georgia

Russia's move to recognise Georgia's territories as independents states without even consulting with any international body like UN, or EU will harm its future and they will not be seen as integrated in world politics anymore. They should reverse individual decision on recognising other country's parts as independent. They soon will recognise independence of Disneyland or even Scotland just to upset UK.
Otto, London

Thank you for giving brief but essential picture of current events seen from inside Russia and South Ossetia. Indeed both South Ossetian and Abkhazian independence referendums were dismissed as illegitimate and that was a mistake. This summer I have enjoyed my holidays in Abkhazia, and talked to local people a lot. Everyone I've talked to said that bringing Abkhazia back under Geogian authority would've caused new war. So peple were really happy that Russia has finally dared to recognize Abkhazia as indepedendent state.
Serguei Volik, Moscow, Russia

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JAMES RODGERS IN MOSCOW

James Rodgers Leaving for good
Our correspondent's valedictory entry before departing Moscow


MAY - OCT 2008
 

SEPT 2007 - APRIL 2008
 

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