Monday, October 6, 2008

If Russians leaving, why build resupply road?

AKHALGORI, Georgia -- Despite Russian pledges to withdraw to their positions prior to the August war with Georgia by the end of this week, Russian troops are upgrading a dirt road linking this town and South Ossetia's capital, Tskhinvali, which could signal their intention to stay.

Akhalgori is in a valley on South Ossetia's periphery, cut off by thickly wooded ridges from the rest of the de facto independent state. The valley had been controlled by Georgia since fighting began in the early 1990s, but in the aftermath of the August fighting, most of the Georgians have fled.

To resupply and rotate troops in the valley, Russian and South Ossetian forces have had to either drive through Georgian-controlled territory or use helicopters.

In recent weeks, soldiers have arrived using a dirt mountain road connecting Akhalgori to the villages in the adjacent valley to the west. The road requires four-wheel-drive vehicles and is impassable in winter.

"There's no real road there yet, but they're building it," said an elderly woman who gave only her first name, Yevgenia.

Russia is building a road because it and South Ossetia's separatist government aren't going to withdraw, said Alexander Rondeli, president of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies.

The only Georgians left in Akhalgori are the old and the poor. Everyone else moved south toward the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, when Russian and South Ossetian forces occupied the town in August.

Those remaining have little else to do but stand on the colorless street outside the few shops still open, smoke cigarettes, talk and watch the soldiers pass by every half-hour on patrol.

"There is no economic activity. They destroyed the vineyards, shops closed, nothing," said a middle-aged man who would only give his first name, Shota.

Like the rest of Akhalgori's ethnic Georgians, Shota fears reprisal from the Russian and South Ossetians stationed here.

"They get drunk and aim their weapons at people and shoot in the air. They beat people" for no reason, he said.

"All the young people have left" because they were beating them, said Yevgenia, a short woman with a weathered face.

"We can't go on like this. We're psychologically sick," she said. She began to cry and covered her face with her trembling hands.

"We're in prison here," she said.

Looting and beatings have calmed down in Akhalgori, but have continued in nearby villages since civilian European Union monitors began patrols Wednesday inside the roughly four-mile-wide buffer zone around South Ossetia and Georgia's other breakaway province, Abkhazia, several residents said.

The unarmed monitors patrol by car, talk with locals and try to verify any reported violations of the Georgian-Russian cease-fire agreement. They have no executive authority to enforce the agreement.

According to the French-brokered cease-fire, Russian and South Ossetian forces are supposed to withdraw from territory seized during the August war with Georgia by Oct. 10.

A spokesman for the European Union monitoring mission in Georgia said the EU had heard reports of road work, but had not been able to independently confirm them. It was speculation to assume that improving the dirt road out of Akhalgori means that the Russians are going to stay, the spokesman said. "There's nothing wrong with improving a road."

The EU expects Russia will uphold its commitments, the spokesman added.

Russia won't leave Akhalgori, said a Georgian Interior Ministry official who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to publicly discuss the matter.

"If Russia controls all of South Ossetia, it will be easier to call for its independence. The region [of Akhalgori] is otherwise fully connected with the rest of Georgia," he said.

"The Russians will say it's the Ossetians who are not withdrawing, and that they have nothing to do with it. But they have to be there because the Ossetians can't control the territory by themselves," he said.

Before the war, the area was Georgian-controlled and not part of the Russian peacekeeping mission.

"It's a very small district, which probably nobody had heard of before, that is now part of a big game," he said.

It is a game the area's inhabitants want no part of.

"The Russians want our land, but they don't want us," said Dmitri Rusi, who lives in nearby Odzisi.

(This article ran in the Washington Times, Oct. 5, and a different version ran in the Christian Science Monitor.)

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