[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
Launch consoleBBC NEWS CHANNEL
Last Updated: Saturday, 22 September 2007, 11:14 GMT 12:14 UK
Strange parade in a strange land
By Matthew Collin
BBC News, South Ossetia

The tiny region of South Ossetia on the border with Russia has been struggling to break away from Georgia since the fall of the Soviet Union. South Ossetian separatists have been celebrating what they call "independence day" this week in their capital, Tskhinvali.

Nurse with flag
People in the "independence" parade waved Russian flags

The parade made its way noisily down Stalin Street, led by men on horseback in traditional warrior costumes, waving South Ossetian and Russian flags.

They were followed by South Ossetian soldiers in combat uniforms and a troupe of ageing Russian Cossacks. A show of strength - or at least that's how it looked at first.

But then things started to get a little strange. A group of young nurses tottered past on high heels, wearing white coats and garish make-up, followed by a procession of farmers on tractors, bakers holding loaves of bread, small children driving go-karts, and most bizarrely of all, a little truck carrying a table, on which a dead turkey was proudly displayed.

But then, South Ossetia is a strange place. This tiny, impoverished region claims that it's independent. But it actually wants to join the Russian Federation, while the rest of the world still recognises it as being part of Georgia.

Two leaders?

Its war to break away from Georgia 15 years ago cost hundreds of lives, and now it exists in a state of what is called "frozen conflict".

Nevertheless, the Georgian government still controls some parts of South Ossetia, and it wants to win back the rest of it. In a recent, imaginative ploy to undermine the separatists, it set up a rival local administration.

Map showing Georgia and South Ossetia

That means a region the size of Somerset, with a population of fewer than 70,000 people, now has two governments and two men claiming to be its leader. It's hardly surprising that tensions remain high, with regular outbreaks of gunfire after dark.

The Russian connection

South Ossetia lies just south of Russia, and Moscow's influence dominates the place. Most people have Russian passports, the currency is Russian roubles, Russians serve in the separatist government, and Russian peacekeepers patrol the conflict zone amid the series of military checkpoints which mark out the de facto border with Georgia.

The passions that sparked the war still run close to the surface. When I asked people watching the parade what they thought about Georgia, it unleashed a torrent of vitriol.

"Do you know what Georgia did to us?" shouted a respectable-looking middle-aged woman. "They committed genocide against the Ossetian people." An old man standing nearby put it more directly: "Georgia is our enemy," he said.

But when I mentioned Russia, the response was entirely different.

"Of course we would feel more secure, being part of Russia," the woman suggested. The old man, once again, got straight to the point: "We have Russian passports, we ARE Russians," he declared.

Demographic solution

Whenever I visit the South Ossetian conflict zone, I get in touch with an Ossetian friend of mine, who seems to be one of the few people on separatist-controlled territory who can think beyond the hatreds which have consumed the region. That also means it's probably best if I don't mention his name.

He doesn't want South Ossetia to return to Georgian control, but he does believe the conflict is sucking the life out of the region. He explains that nothing much has changed since the end of the Soviet Union because South Ossetia has been in a constant state of conflict.

Two South Ossetians
Moscow's influence can be felt in many parts of South Ossetia

He says the only employment opportunities are working for the authorities or serving in the security forces. So increasing numbers of people are leaving to find work and happiness in Russia - including most of his best friends.

He suggests the conflict could even resolve itself demographically within a decade, because by then so many Ossetians may have moved out of the region, there won't be enough people left to carry on the dispute with Georgia.

Unofficial links

Nevertheless, although he says he's not very optimistic about the future, he wants to stay here and help improve things in any way he can. The only way forward, he suggests, is if Georgians and Ossetians trade with each other, and start to build up personal contacts and friendships away from all the hostile political rhetoric.

It may be hard to imagine, in a place where neighbour once fought against neighbour. But in fact it does happen already, if not always officially or legitimately.

As my colleagues and I were sitting in a car in the South Ossetian capital, our Ossetian taxi driver's mobile phone rang.

"Hello, how are you?" he answered. He was speaking Georgian. And he seemed to be setting up some kind of business deal with people on the other side of the de facto border.

"You speak the Georgian language?" one of us asked.

"Of course," he replied.

"But do you ever visit the Georgian capital?"

"No," he said. "Of course not. Never."

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday 22 September, 2007 at 11.30 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Regions and territories: South Ossetia
19 Sep 07 |  Country profiles
Timeline: Georgia
25 Aug 07 |  Country profiles

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


banner watch listen bbc sport Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific