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From Euphoria To Wary Optimism In Georgia's Breakaway Regions

  • Robert Coalson

Two men repair a sidewalk in Tskhinvali, in South Ossetia.

Two men repair a sidewalk in Tskhinvali, in South Ossetia.

Amid widespread poverty and massive unemployment, even a rumor that somebody is hiring in Georgia's breakaway region of South Ossetia can make waves.

Recently word got out in the region's main city, Tskhinvali, that a new factory was hiring, says a local teacher who asks to be identified as Madina.

"I heard that now they are opening a factory that will employ 350 people. And a lot of people want to apply to work there," Madina says. "People are tired of doing nothing, of all the disorder, the unemployment, of standing on street corners and feeling envious of neighbors who are somehow making at least some money."

In August 2008, the residents of the breakaway Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia greeted Russia's war victory over Georgia and Moscow's subsequent formal recognition of those two regions' independence with hope and enthusiasm.

It seemed a landmark moment in the regions' long struggle for independence. But five years later, only a tiny handful of countries have followed Moscow's lead in recognizing the regions. Both remain isolated and economically and politically dependent on Russia.

'Moscow Wasn't Built In A Day'

Most locals who spoke with RFE/RL express a cautious optimism, but one that betrays a certain weariness. Madina remembers how her city was nearly destroyed in 2008 and tries to look on the bright side.

"The most important thing is that we have peace -- even peaceful relations with our neighbors," Madina says. "Of course things could be better. But Moscow wasn't built in a day. Maybe things will slowly get better and more of our problems will be solved."

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Likewise, in Abkhazia's main city, Sukhumi, a woman who asks to be identified as Natalya says the region is slowly being repaired after many years of neglect following the destructive war in 1992-93 that led to Abkhazia's de facto independence.

"There have been fundamental changes," she says. "People have changed -- even their mood is better. They know there is hope for the future, that there is a solid foundation for that. And we didn't have that feeling before."

Different Aims

In many ways, the two regions are starkly different.

Abkhazia is a relatively large region with sprawling beaches, access to the Black Sea, and considerable potential for tourism. South Ossetia is small and impoverished, sandwiched between Russia and the rest of Georgia. Even its access to Russia is blocked by formidable mountains through which a single highway burrows through an aging tunnel. As Moscow State University professor Aleksandr Karavayev has said, the region "lacks the basis for economic development."
A woman dries a carpet after returning to her bullet-riddled home in Tskhinvali in August 2008.

A woman dries a carpet after returning to her bullet-riddled home in Tskhinvali in August 2008.


Perhaps the most important difference is that many in South Ossetia -- including much of the Moscow-supported ruling elite -- favor integration into the Russian Federation. Abkhaz almost universally support full independence.

"Since the recognition of my country, how has my life changed?" Sukhumi resident Yuta responds to an RFE/RL correspondent. "Now I walk around with my head held high because I am a citizen of the independent republic of Abkhazia and it has been recognized by Russia, one of the strongest countries there is."

'Soviet-Era Levels'

Following the war and Moscow's recognition, many in Abkhazia expected more support from the international community, says George Hewitt, a professor of Caucasian languages at London University. He is an advocate of international recognition for Abkhazia and author of the new book "Discordant Neighbors: A Reassessment of the Georgian-Abkhazian and Georgian-South Ossetian Conflicts."

"One might say overconfidence or overoptimism took hold, just as it did after the victory in the earlier war of 1992-93," Hewitt says. "The Abkhazians in general hoped that the West would look favorably on Abkhazia and would be more sympathetic toward recognizing its right for independence. But, as we know, very few states have followed Russia's lead of August 26, 2008."
A woman walks in Gali, in Abkhazia.

A woman walks in Gali, in Abkhazia.


Hewitt, speaking to RFE/RL from Sukhumi, notes that the United Kingdom and other Western countries advise travelers not to visit Abkhazia and, as a result, the region's potentially lucrative tourism industry is mired in "Soviet-era levels." Abkhaz, Hewitt says, appreciate Russia's support but worry that Georgia's efforts to isolate the region force Abkhazia to maintain and intensify its dependence on Moscow.

'Just Simmering'

Both regions suffer from inefficiency and corruption and have had trouble fully accounting for the vast amounts of aid that Russia provides. Everybody agrees that unemployment is sky-high, although precise figures are hard to come by.

"There is no future here for an ordinary person," Inna Guchmazova, a musician in Tskhinvali, says. "In order to have some sort of opportunity here, one must be a bureaucrat or have some sort of official position. And I don't even think those people have a real future -- just opportunities for the time they hold their posts. There is no development and it is impossible to do anything new. We are just simmering in our own juice."

The residents of both regions know they are in the midst of a long process involving many factors that are beyond their control. Fatima, the 8-year-old daughter of Tskhinvali teacher Madina, knows for certain what she wants from the future.

"After the war, the city changed," she says. "They built some buildings, some neighborhoods, parks, schools, factories, military areas. But I'd like the city to be bigger -- so that there would be more people, more buildings, more parks, and more merry-go-rounds."

RFE/RL Echo of the Caucasus correspondent Irina Kelkhsayeva contributed to this report from Tskhinvali and Anaid Gogoryan contributed from Sukhumi
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    Robert Coalson

    Robert Coalson covers Russia, the Balkans, and Eastern Europe. Send story tips to coalsonr@rferl.org

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