The crossing point between Georgia and South Ossetia isn’t exactly a border – the international community has never recognised this small territory which declared independence from Tbilisi in 1991. Since the final years of the Soviet Union, Russian-backed separatists in South Ossetia have sought to break away from Georgia. The dispute descended into a civil war in 1991. A Russian-mediated ceasefire ended the conflict a year later.
A couple of thousand Russian, Georgian and Ossetian peacekeepers were deployed in the region. By early 2003 it appeared the political situation in Georgia had stabilized after years of civil strife, until Mikhail Saakashvili took over as president. Accusing Russian troops of backing the separatists, he proposed limited autonomy: “For the first time in 12 years, the Georgian government is offering autonomy to South Ossetia and basically guarantees the autonomy under international supervision,” said Saakashvili.
But the separatists want full independence and international recognition of South Ossetia. However, around one third of the region’s population of 70,000 is not of Ossetian but of Georgian origin and does not want secession. Backed by Tbilisi, they organised an alternative ballot.
The electoral committee set up its headquarters in the ethnically mixed village of Eredvi. Committee leader Uruzmag Karkusov is a former ally of separatist chief Eduard Kokoity. “We don’t want to let the republic of South Ossetia slide into war,” he said. “We mustn’t divide the nation into an Ossetian and a Georgian side.”
Many Georgians who fled South Ossetia in 1992 now live in the Georgian town of Gori. “One day, we hope to be able to return to South Ossetia,” says one refugee. “Everyone shares that hope. But we don’t want autonomy for South Ossetia, because then the same thing will happen again in 10 or 20 years, and our children will be forced to leave their homes too.” For these 12,000 refugees, it makes no difference whether Tbilisi recognises the referendum or not – their fate, for now, remains unchanged.