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Last Updated: Saturday, 18 November 2006, 11:31 GMT
Competing for votes in South Ossetia
By Matthew Collin
BBC News, South Ossetia

There have been two simultaneous referendums in the tiny former Soviet region of South Ossetia, which has been trying to break away from Georgia after a civil war in the early 1990s. One resulted in an overwhelming vote for complete separation, and the other - among ethnic Georgians - a resolve to stay loyal to Tbilisi.

A Russian peacekeeper guards a Georgian-South Ossetinan border some 120 km outside Tbilisi
Georgia wants Russian guards to be replaced by international forces

The view from the house on Stalin Street where we were staying probably looked much the same as it did 20 years ago in Soviet times.

Stalin Street runs right through Tskhinvali, the drab, sleepy capital of South Ossetia, a region which has been trying to break away from Georgian rule since a war in the early 1990s.

The road leads north, towards the majestic snow-capped peaks of the Caucasus mountains, all the way to the Russian border.

As we drove along it, we began to understand the absurd but dangerous situation in which people in South Ossetia live their daily lives.

First we reached a checkpoint manned by Russian troops, who are here to police the region's uneasy peace.

Next to them was a huge billboard poster of the Russian leader, Vladimir Putin.

After all the killing here, do the Georgians really expect us to forgive them?
Galina Khabalova

"Our president," it declared.

A few metres on was a Georgian army checkpoint. Beyond that, a string of ethnic Georgian villages which the South Ossetian authorities do not control, interspersed with yet more Russian and Georgian army posts.

The whole region is a complex patchwork of Ossetian and Georgian zones, with people living almost side by side in an atmosphere of mutual suspicion, kept apart by men with guns.

Teenage bloodshed

After passing through six checkpoints and being questioned by the South Ossetian KGB, we finally reached the Ossetian village of Dzhava.

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 headmistress of the local school, Galina Khabalova, showed us a small shrine to a teenager who was shot dead while fighting the Georgians during the war.

The school had been named in memory of the boy, who was considered a patriotic hero.

There were family photographs of the dark-haired, serious-looking 18-year-old, surrounded by flowers and a Russian flag.

The headmistress repeated what she said were the teenager's last words before he died: "I am an Ossetian protecting my land."

"After all the killing here," she asked, "do the Georgians really expect us to forgive them and live with them?"

Fighting talk

Although Georgians believe that South Ossetia is part of their territory, few have any sense of the depth of the Ossetians' rage.

South Ossetian men dancing at a polling station in Tskhinvali
Some in favour of independence have been celebrating

It was not hard to find young men who said they would go to war if Georgia tried to reassert control - angry youths who told us Georgia was a fascist state, and spoke of what they described as Georgian genocide against Ossetians.

One such man - a radio disc jockey called Atsa Kokoyev - said he used to live in Russia, but had returned to South Ossetia to get involved in the breakaway struggle.

Atsa did not fit the stereotype of the anti-Western, pro-Russian separatist hothead.

He said he was a fan of European dance music, and liked to listen to British DJs on BBC radio.

But he also said he was willing to take up arms against the Georgians.

"We're ready to fight," he said, "only the authorities here are holding us back."

Alternative route

Many here believe that only Russia can protect them from what they see as Georgian aggression.

Women cast their ballots at a polling station in the South Ossetian village of Yeredvi where many ethnic Georgians live
Some ethnic Georgians produced their own referendum results

They use Russian roubles instead of Georgian currency, many have Russian passports, and their clocks run on Moscow time rather than Georgian time.

Although the Kremlin has given no indication that it wants to welcome the region into the Russian Federation, some Ossetians believe it is their destiny.

But just down the road from Tskhinvali, we heard a very different story.

In the ethnic Georgian village of Eredvi was the headquarters of the alternative referendum campaign, in which people voted to build a federal state with Georgia.

As we were waiting to meet the head of the election commission, a chubby giant of a man in combat uniform offered us biscuits and informed us that South Ossetia did not and should not exist.

It was a part of Georgia, he said, always had been and always would be.

The Ossetian separatists were just Moscow's puppets, we were told, doing the Kremlin's dirty work in order to undermine Georgia and its pro-Western government.

Underlying battle

The two competing referendums seemed only to have inflamed passions here and made a solution to the long-running conflict harder to find.

There were also competing presidential elections, which left this region of about 70,000 people in the bizarre position of having two men claiming to be its president - neither of whom are likely to receive international recognition.

One of the few people we met who seemed ready to contemplate a pragmatic solution was an Ossetian economist called Vakhtang Dzhigkayev.

South Ossetia, he said, had become a pawn in the power game between Georgia and Russia, an international pariah with only one friend - Moscow.

"We need to find a way to rebuild relations with Georgia," he told us.

"We have to find a way to live together. If not, there is no possibility of a normal life for us here."

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday 18 November, 2006 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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