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South Ossetian Ghost Towns

Tim Whewell of the New Statesman manages to get an early visit to one of the world’s newest self-proclaimed nations, South Ossetia, and finds himself in a geopolitical purgatory.

It is easy to think of those people as mere playthings of Russia, a useful excuse for meddling in the affairs of a state – Georgia – whose president, Mikhail Saakashvili, the Kremlin loathes. Vladimir Putin declared recently he’d like to “hang him by the balls”. Over the past few years, Russia has handed out passports to South Ossetians. It helpfully allowed some junior Russian officials to become ministers in the South Ossetian government. It devoted considerable efforts to improving facilities for its 500 peacekeepers in the territory. And in August it claimed – with huge hyperbole – that it was being forced to invade Georgia to stop a “genocide” of Ossetians and rescue the survivors in a town that the Russian media reported had been razed to the ground.

Reach Tskhinvali and you find a place that, for all the gaping holes in walls and roofs, is still largely standing and working. On a first visit, it is hard not to be more shocked by what has happened to the ethnic Georgian villages on the edge of the town. After revenge attacks by Ossetian militias since the war, they are collections of burnt-out shells, some houses apparently even bulldozed by the authorities.