You are here:   Dispatches > Moscow: Putin's Empire Strikes Out

Abkhazia and South Ossetia are the Kremlin's enclaves, their "independence" recognised only by Moscow , Venezuela and Nicaragua. Two cartographic daggers pointing south into Georgia, they are the Kremlin's way of showing it still acts geopolitically. Felgenhauer believes war will roll into the South Caucasus once more. "This year, the Russian Army tested what it called an information pipeline for modern joined-up warfare. It didn't really work. But Russia is determined to control Georgia. If you can dominate that strategic position, a land-link to Armenia is established and Azerbaijan falls into line. All of the critical pipelines that Russia does not control pass through Georgia to Europe. If you control Tbilisi, Central Asia then falls into line. Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan would be under far heavier Russian writ." 

The mountain frontier between Russian North Ossetia and its formally independent South seems at first glance to be to be as pristine as in Lermontov's time. But as the bumpy road coils through the peaks, heavy construction veers into view. Tunnels are being smashed through outcrops and driveways ploughed through the wilds. Davit Sanokoyev, the burly South Ossetian Ombudsman apparently charged with "Human Rights", explains as he points across the valley, "This is where a large Russian gas pipeline is being constructed to heat Tskhinvali." But it seems suspiciously large to fit that purpose. 

Tskhinvali, the "capital" of South Ossetia, is a large wrecked village where wild dogs outnumber children. Shelled districts look as if they have been passed through blenders. There are constant shortages and power cuts. Fresh ruins rot at every turn. Young men traipse the streets in ill-fitting combat gear. "President" Eduard Kokoity, a former wrestler, puts a brave face on all of this: "Our aim is integration with Russia but not into Russia. We have signed more than 48 agreements with Moscow. This amounts to the building of a sovereignty-sharing arrangement like the one within the European Union." He becomes defensive when I inquire about the ethnic Russians with FSB and military careers who make up most of his ministerial team. "Well, it's no secret we've got manpower problems down here." When I ask about the fact that Russia pays for everything, he replies: "Most of our budget is aid from Russia but isn't it clear to you what a state the place is in?"

The frontlines with Georgia snake through fields of long grass, often turning into trenches, barely three miles from Kokoity's office. The village of Khetagurovo lies in their line of sight. It hardly exists any more. The windows are blown out. Doors are hanging open, fences wrenched apart. Nature is devouring every corner, like a scene out of The Day of the Triffids. The South Ossetian Minister of Defence, Yuri Tanaev, was giggling at his own lewd jokes when I met him. "Let me tell you something," he begins, urging me to share a bottle of vodka with him. "The Georgians are like a cat that does not know the right place to shit. In fact, we have an expression in the mountains that sums the whole thing up. A fit young rabbit will never fight a bear, even if that bear is very old and extremely sick. The Georgian-Russian relationship is just like this." He finds this hilarious. 

That night in Tskhinvali, the Ossetians stage a first anniversary memorial service for the war. It begins with a screen displaying CNN images of George W. Bush and the Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili shaking hands. It is closer to incitement than commemoration. Later, speakers blares out mournful Rachmaninov. The piano mixes into the sounds of hundreds of howling wild dogs scattered among the ruins. The battle of Tskhinvali was fêted in Russia as a turning point on its march back to superpower status. But it is really a monument to the human cost of geopolitical bargaining chips. 

View Full Article
Bill Corr
October 6th, 2009
10:10 AM
The dismemberment of the Soviet Empire caused tragic suffering ... even the remaining Pontic Greeks were involved as victimes

September 29th, 2009
3:09 PM
The "harsh consonant" "D"? Idiotic.

Post your comment

This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
Related content
More Dispatches
Popular Standpoint topics