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26 Aug, 2009 19:41

Joy & tears: Caucasian republics mark independence

The people of South Ossetia and Abkhazia are celebrating one year since Russia recognized their independence from Georgia. Moscow made the move following Tbilisi’s assault on South Ossetia last August.

President Dmitry Medvedev says the decision to recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia is irreversible.

“After Georgia's aggression against South Ossetia, Russia made a painful, yet clear decision, and it was the right one: to protect the people of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. No other decision could have been made back then,” believes Medvedev.

Recognition neither desired nor required

Moscow said it never planned to recognize these republics’ independence, but was forced to do so in order to protect the two nations from Georgian aggression.

“We have never urged anyone to recognize the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia,” Russia’s Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said Wednesday, as quoted by RIA Novosti.

Even Nicaragua’s decision to recognize the two republics, Putin continued, became a surprise for Moscow. Still, the majority of, if not all, South Ossetians say it was still a great victory – one which that nation had been trying to achieve for nearly two decades.

“I don't regret it. It was legitimate under international law. Our decision is irrevocable, and we will act in accordance with it,” President Medvedev stated.

“I went to South Ossetia recently and saw that people there are poor. South Ossetia will struggle without our help, and we'll continue to honor our commitments."

Big holiday

Ossetians say it’s a big holiday for them.

“Thank God this is happening. To South Ossetia’s independence and our new life”
– toasts are pronounced all across this small land.

Despite the fact it’s a celebration, the atmosphere is still subdued. Many memories and emotional wounds are still as fresh as if they happened yesterday, so some toasts of the locals sound tragic:

“It’s difficult to talk without tears. Let’s remember those who gave their lives to protect their motherland, and to our brothers who rescued us from extinction”.

On the second day of last August’s conflict, some districts in Tskhinval – the capital of South Ossetia – were deliberately flooded by Georgian troops. Basements were the only places the people could take shelter in during constant bombing, so they had to run from one to another as bullets flew over their heads, trying to find dry shelter.

The Georgian attacks only stopped after Russian forces pushed them out, fulfilling its peacekeeping obligations.

“The Georgians named their plan ‘empty field’, and I really thought it had been made reality,” said local resident Aleksandr Khabalov.

“As we were taking cover in that basement I was sure nearly half of the city was dead.”

The conflict was officially over on August 16, with the signing of the Medvedev-Sarkozy six point peace plan, mediated by the European Union.

During the eight days of fighting, nearly 80 per cent of the South Ossetian capital’s buildings were either destroyed or damaged. Many people were still in shock, fearing Georgia would launch another attack. There had been several since the collapse of the Soviet Union

That’s why the news that Russia was recognizing the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, as well as offering protection, caused unprecedented celebration in both republics. Thousands took to the streets to celebrate.

“I remember everybody kept asking each other if it was really true,” said Izolda Gagloyeva from the South Ossetian ministry for press and mass communications. “We’d been waiting for so long it was hard to believe it finally happened.”

Gas valve open

After his Wednesday meeting in Moscow with South Ossetian President, Eduard Kokoity, Vladimir Putin authorized the launch of the first pipeline to carry Russian natural gas directly to the republic, bypassing Georgian territory.

Gazprom chief executive Aleksey Miller called his deputy in South Ossetia's capital, Tskhinval, and instructed him to open the valve.

The Russian prime minister also explained that the 169-kilometer-long pipeline is capable of delivering 250 million cubic meters of natural gas every year, which will be more than enough to satisfy South Ossetia’s needs.

Miller, in his turn, clarified that the agreement with the republic’s authorities is valid for 20 years.

Other issues on agenda

Russia says that support will continue – something underlined in the Wednesday high-level talks.

The main focus of the discussion was on rebuilding South Ossetia and boosting its economy, social structure and infrastructure – everything to make it a fully independent state. The agreement on fighting organized crime in the republic was among the initiatives aimed at boosting peace and security in the region.

Many other projects are on the agenda, and Russia has pledged significant financial support to fulfill them.

For the sake of peace

Moreover, as Vladimir Putin emphasized, Russia supports Georgia financially, too.

“Georgia receives quite a lot of money through the International Monetary Fund. We are an active member of the IMF and we regularly provide very large assistance to this international financial organization, which is then distributed among the countries in need, and now are also sent to Georgia,” Russia’s Prime Minister explained.

“This proves that we are not interested in humiliating Georgia,” Putin added.

Vladimir Putin went on to say that Russia does not view this situation and the escalation of the conflict last August as the case of winners and losers. Rather, all of the efforts that Russia is putting forth are simply done to ensure peace in the region.

Read also South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Kosovo and the future