The aim of the majority of Ossetians is a united Ossetia
From the very first days of the war Liza Valieva, the chief editor of the site Ossetia.ru, followed the events which were unfolding in South Ossetia. She kept in contact with the inhabitants of Tskhinvali, who were sitting in their cellars during the shelling and bombings, as well as with fighters who were defending the city. She helped Russian and foreign journalists to get in touch with them. She spoke to the Italian magazine Eurasia about the situation in South Ossetia.
I was very surprised by the statement made by the mayor of Khasavyurt who supported the volunteers who wanted to defend the people of South Ossetia. Dagestanis, Adyghes and Chechens took part in defending South Ossetia. Can we view this as a positive sign of brotherhood between the peoples of the Caucasus?
During the first conflict in South Ossetia in 1991 there were hardly any volunteers, unlike in Abkhazia where there lots of volunteers, mainly Dagestanis, Adyghes, Chechens and Ossetians. Since then Georgia has started to be considered a common enemy for Ossetians, Abkhazians and the Caucasian people who have come to help them. Furthermore, North Ossetia is linked by bonds of friendship with all the North Caucasian republics apart from Ingushetia, with which it is in conflict over the Prigorodniy region.
Chechnya and Dagestan demonstrated their friendship with Ossetia during this war. What was the behaviour of Ingushetia and the Ingush people in Alania? How did it react to the war? Did this war eliminate the tension between Ossetia and Ingushetia?
The official leadership of Ingushetia is loyal to the Kremlin and so in their rhetoric they supported the Ossetians. However, in these words of support, Senator Kostoev made parallels between what has happened in South Ossetia and the events in the Prigorodniy region in the 1940s, blaming it all on Stalin. Yet the opposition media of Ingushetia openly supported Georgia, reprinting the Georgian version of the conflict, including blatantly misinformed news. I don’t think that this conflict either softened or heightened the tension between Ossetia and Ingushetia.
Do you have any recollections, accounts or important phrases told by some of the Tskhinvali refugees?
The story of an 86-year old Tskhinvali resident Il’ya Tuaev, who was on holiday in a guest house in the mountains of South Ossetia during the war, has stuck in my memory. He found out about the outbreak of war through the television. He thought that the city had been totally wiped off the face of the earth. When a few days after the end of the fighting he arrived in Tskhinvali, he was scared to get out of the car. «I was terrified. I thought that my children were no longer alive. I was afraid of looking at my house, I thought that there would be nothing left of it,» he said.
I’ve also remembered the account of his daughter Irina Tuaeva, who throughout the whole conflict was in Tskhinvali and during the shelling by the ‘Grad’ machines and air-bombardments she hid in a cellar with her neighbours. «When a lull in the shelling came, we emerged from our cellars filthy, with dishevelled hair and maddened eyes. We saw the first Russian tanks which had entered the city. The soldiers were looking at us as if we were creatures from another world. I think they were surprised that anyone had survived in the city after that intensity of shelling. We ourselves were surprised. One soldier got a chocolate bar out of his pocket, opened it and held it out to me. This moved me to tears,» recalled Irina.
You have visited Tskhinvali several times following the retreat by the Georgian army. What is the damage and what are the most urgent and essential things that need to be done?
A colossal amount of damage has been inflicted on the city. Historical monuments and buildings have been destroyed. Houses sometimes caught fire because of the shells and were burnt to the ground, the university and several schools have been destroyed, the hospital and the parliament building have been partly destroyed. For the first two weeks after the war in South Ossetia there was no electricity, water or gas. But workers from the Ministry for Emergency Situations have carried out energetic work to restore these. Now in Tskhinvali there is electricity and water. Many residents of Tskhinvali have lost their homes and now live with relatives or neighbours.
The Leningorsk and Znaursk regions consist of Ossetian and Georgian villages. How has the war changed the make-up of the villages? Are there still Georgian villages in Ossetia or are they occupied by Ossetians?
In the Leningorsk and Znaursk regions Georgian villages are undoubtedly still there. But what does «occupied» mean? It’s South Ossetian territory. Now all the territory is under the control of the Ossetian authorities. The Georgian enclave of four villages between Dzhava and Tskhinvali has been totally destroyed. It was here in the village of Kurta that the residence of the puppet leader Dmitrii Sanakoev was located, who still hasn’t received any formal status in Georgia.
Has the war changed South Ossetia’s borders in any way, or has everything returned to how it was before 7th August 2008?
The question of South Ossetia’s borders is very interesting, but requires some clarification, since the various sides of the conflict see these borders in different ways. So, legally in Georgia’s point of view South Ossetia does not exist, and the territory of the former South Ossetian Autonomous Region is divided up between several regions of Georgia. From the point of view of the Ossetians, South Ossetia’s borders lie in exactly the same place as the borders of the South Ossetian Autonomous Region were located. Therefore, here it will probably be more appropriate to talk about the territories which were controlled by both sides. And so by various estimations between 30 and 40 percent of South Ossetia’s territory (practically all of the Leningorsk region and parts of Znaursk and Tskhinvali regions) was under Georgia’s control. But after the conflict, even though the borders have remained the same, all this territory is now under the control of the South Ossetian authorities.
The Russian Federation has presented some precise figures of military losses (10-15 peacemakers, several military aeroplanes and a tank). Are there figures about Georgia’s military losses and those during the self-defence of South Ossetia?
As far as I’m aware of, it was not 10-15 Russian peacekeepers that were killed, but 67. According to official figures, the Russian army lost 71 men, and the Georgians 133. I think that these numbers are somewhat understated, because there was serious fighting on South Ossetian territory. Independent sources estimate the number of losses from the Georgian army as 500-1500 men. This seems to be confirmed by the fact that the Georgians have buried some of their soldiers in a communal grave, whilst nowadays there are numerous ways to carry out identification of bodies, including genetic analysis. Such burials may be an attempt to cover up the real number of losses. It is difficult to comment on the number of military losses on the Ossetian side, because local residents also helped to defend the city. Overall, according to figures released by the South Ossetian prosecutor’s office, the number of fatalities and those missing without trace constitutes 1692 people. But this number is surely an overestimate. On the website of the public commission there is a list of 364 people who have been killed and have a registered cause of death and place of burial. But this figure will yet increase.
How do you view the start of the Georgian invasion? Do you think that it was the Tbilisi government’s own choice, or do you think that Saakashvili was ‘forced’ to do it by the USA or Russia?
Russia was quite content with the situation in South Ossetia as it had been left indefinitely, as Russia has since been forced into recognizing South Ossetia. This has brought it a lot of negative reports on the international stage and Russia effectively went from being peacekeepers into being embroiled in a conflict zone.
The US Republicans could have encouraged Saakashvili to launch this operation in order to solve their own domestic electoral problems. It’s impossible to say for certain that this was a catalyst for Saakashvili’s decision, but he was confident that Russia would not intervene. This view is supported by the date chosen for the start of the operation, the day before the Opening Ceremony of the Olympic Games, when President Medvedev was on holiday and Prime Minister Putin was in Beijing for the Olympics. This is also supported by the way the situation developed during the conflict, when the Georgians didn’t even try to block the Rok Tunnel and didn’t try to carry out any military actions towards Dzhava.
Because of its location Tskhinvali is a very difficult location to defend and Saakashvili wanted to take it under control within a very short space of time, in order to present this to the entire world as a fait accompli. His plan was that at 21.00 on 8th August the Georgian authorities were meant to have made a press conference in Tskhinvali. This could all have happened had Russia not intervened, which Saakashvili was for some reason certain they wouldn’t.
How do you see Georgia’s future? Do you think that Saakashvili will resign and leave politics? Can the political opposition parties seek dialogue with Russia?
Saakashvili had problems with his ratings, which was shown in the presidential elections at the start of the year. Although he won them, according to the evaluation of observers they were not entirely democratic, and 10-16% of the vote were added on to his tally with the help of administrative resources. And the people who carried out these elections, notably Mr. Yakobashvili, obtained posts in Georgia’s government.
It is clear that, on the background of the conflict, the nation rallied round its leader and it is now beneficial for Saakashvili to maintain the tension in Georgia, because as soon as it begins to diminish, the opposition will start asking him unpleasant questions. And the result of this could be the resignation of Saakashvili, especially if the loss of the territory of Abkhazia and South Ossetia becomes an indisputable fact, which it all seems to be leading to.
However, at the same time no strongly pro-Russian forces can yet be seen on the Georgian political landscape, and I don’t think that they will appear in the near future, because it is Russia that is ensuring the independence of the two former Georgian territories and is considered an occupier by Georgians.
If we are to consider Georgia’s future president, we need to mention Nino Burdzhanadze who distanced herself from Saakshvili and his party in spring this year by not taking part in the parliamentary elections. And who is already now carrying out active consultations in the USA. Although less likely, one can also talk of Salome Zurabishvili, for whom Europe is lobbying.
Can we view and take into account the recognition of South Ossetia’s independence as the first step towards the creation of a united Ossetia? Definitely, yes. The aim of most Ossetians is a united Ossetia within the framework of Russia. The first step towards this has already been made. However, it is still too early to talk of the second step — uniting with North Ossetia — this could increase international pressure on Russia. Moscow has declared many times that it has no pretensions to these territories, and that it is only ensuring their security. I think that it will only be appropriate to talk about joining North Ossetia after the international recognition of South Ossetia’s independence.