Two years ago last night, Georgian television broadcast soldiers firing rockets into Tskhinvali, the capital of the pro-Moscow breakaway province of South Ossetia. Tbilisi said it was restoring order in the region and briefly took the city. But a massive Russian response crushed the Georgian military as Russian troops pushed deep into uncontested Georgian territory.
Georgia's five-day conflict with Russia broke out after days of clashes with the pro-Moscow rebels, and followed years of growing tension between Moscow and U.S. ally Tbilisi. It plunged Russia's relations with the West to lows not seen since the end of the Cold War.
On August 8, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev visited Georgia's second pro-Moscow separatist region, Abkhazia, for the first time since the conflict. He held talks with Abkhazia's rebel leader, Sergei Bagapsh, and promised to develop full political, economic, and security relations with Abkhazia.
Medvedev said recognizing the two Georgian breakaway regions as independent shortly after the war was necessary to end the threat their people would be wiped out.
"The decision Russia made after the military part of the conflict wasn't an easy one, but time has shown it was the right one," Medvedev said.
Moscow said it acted to prevent Georgian genocide in the two regions, a view relentlessly supported by propaganda on Russian state-controlled television. Georgia accuses Russia of annexing its breakaway provinces.
Georgia's economy, hit hard by the conflict, has recently begun reviving, thanks partly to U.S. financial aid. But two years later, the memory of Russia's invasion remains raw.
‘Difficult And Painful’
In the city of Gori, which was occupied by Russian forces, thousands gathered on the central square on August 7 to light 5,000 candles commemorating those who died during the war.
Resident Lali Tsitsagi said it was a very emotional day for Georgians. "I couldn't stay at home," Tsitsagi said. "I came here to pay respect to those heroes who died in the war. It is very difficult, very painful, and very sad that such a thing could have happened in the 21st century."
Tens of thousands of Georgians remain displaced by the conflict.
In a settlement built by the government to house ethnic Georgians displaced from South Ossetia, where Georgian villages were burned down and bulldozed, few believe they'll ever return.
Engineer Vladimir Zangaladze, whose family fled the South Ossetian village of Kekhvi, says Russia prepared for the invasion years in advance.
"If that wasn't so, why did the Russians cleanse and raze Kekhvi, Tamarasheni, Achabeti -- all the villages in Didi Liakhvi Gorge -- to the ground? There was no presidential office or parliament building there," Zangaladze says. "If they really disagreed with the country's policy or didn't like the president, what did Kekhvi's villagers have to do with that?''
Thousands of Russian troops remain in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, in violation of a French-brokered cease-fire ending the conflict.
Russia is putting up new buildings in Tskhinvali after promising a massive reconstruction effort. But Tskhinvali resident Grigory Dzasokhov, who lives with his family in a tent outside his ruined house, said "nothing" was being rebuilt.
"The money allocated for construction vanishes, like water running through a sieve or into the sand," he said.
Only three countries have joined Russia in recognizing Georgia's breakaway regions: Nicaragua, Venezuela, and the tiny island state of Nauru. Critics say far from actually being independent, both regions depend on Russian aid. Moscow supplies 99 percent of South Ossetia's budget.
But despite an ongoing split with Russia over its invasion, the United States and European Union have sought to restore relations with Moscow. Analysts say that's partly because of the recognition that there's little Western countries can do to influence Moscow's actions in Georgia.
Speaking to RFE/RL's Georgian Service, military expert Irakli Aladashvili says it's unacceptable that Russia continues occupying Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the face of overwhelming international condemnation.
"The Russian military bases are being reinforced every day and will gradually pose a threat not only to Georgia but all of the South Caucasus, and not only there but -- as in Soviet times -- to NATO members, Turkey, and NATO's interests in the Black Sea."
But, Aladashvili adds, Georgia is in no position to try to reclaim its two breakaway regions.
written by Gregory Feifer with material from RFE/RL's Georgian Service