Territorial Tensions Build Between Russia and Georgia

Relations between Russia and the former Soviet Republic of Georgia have reached dangerous new lows. Georgian officials suspect that Russia wants to annex two areas of their republic. Observers say a worst-case scenario would involve a direct war between Russia and Georgia over the territory.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

We're following another battle over whether some people should belong to another country. Since the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Russia and the former Soviet Republic of Georgia have had tense relations, and the latest bad blood comes over Moscow's support for a rebel Georgian region which wants to unite with Russia.

Georgia has accused Russia of planning to annex part of its territory, as NPR's Lawrence Sheets reports.

LAWRENCE SHEETS reporting:

This is the ramshackled main bizarre in South Ossetia capital of Tskhinvali. It's supposed to be part of Georgia, but the fruit peddlers and hawkers of cheap Chinese t-shirts here prefer Russian rubles over Georgia's currency, the Lari. Fifteen years ago, ethnic Ossetians won de facto self-rule after bloody classes with Georgians. But no one ever recognized the independence of the separatists, who control a strip of mountain territory smaller than Long Island. Instead of independent, South Ossetia is quickly becoming an appendage of Russia, to the north.

Thirty-year-old trader Julia Gudiyava's(ph) attitude is typical.

Ms. JULIA GUDIYAVA: (Through translator) We've been fighting with the Georgians for 17 years and nothing has come of it. We want to be with Russia. People here are categorically against being part of Georgia.

SHEETS: Russia is obliging that wish. Moscow has granted Russian passports to more than 90% of South Ossetians. And the Russian flag flies atop the separatist government buildings here.

Many Ossetians say their affinity for Russia is natural, because of hundreds of thousands of Ossetians live over the border in Russia. But Georgian President Mikael Saakashvili says that South Ossetia's separatist regime would collapse without Moscow's backing.

President Saakashvili says Moscow's support of South Ossetia is part of a wider plot.

President MIKAEL SAAKASHVILI (Republic of Georgia): Some people always dream of if they can not really revive the Soviet Union or get back the proper Budapest, maybe they can get back some small pieces of neighboring countries.

SHEETS: Georgia recently demanded a contingent of Russian peacekeepers leave South Ossetia. Georgia accuses them of aiding the separatists. But Russia flatly refuses to leave. Russian lawmakers have angrily denounced Georgia, whose drive to join NATO and pursue close military ties with the United States irritates Moscow.

American Marines are training Georgian troops and equipping them. Among other tasks, the Georgians will guard a vital new oil pipeline here. Boris Chochiev is separatist South Ossetia's Deputy prime minister.

Deputy Prime Minister BORIS CHOCHIEV (South Ossetia): (Through translator) If the USA has the right to keep soldiers in Georgia to help guard the pipeline, why shouldn't Russia have the right to keep its forces here and protect its citizens from annihilation?

SHEETS: Georgia is furious over big weapons transfers it says Moscow has provided the separatists. Military experts say the concentration of arms here makes South Ossetia one of the most militarized places on earth. According to both Georgian and South Ossetian figures, this tiny region, with just 25,000 people, now has more than 80 tanks, 150 armored vehicles, and about 20 multiple rocket launchers.

Even in South Ossetia's schools, a certain militarization is evident. In a third-grade classroom, teachers have tacked their pupils' drawings to the wall. They involve war themes; crayon sketches of burning Georgian tanks, helicopter gun ships, and men with guns.

Even young kids like Bathrat Stugusive(ph), echo the South Ossetian leadership's line that Georgia is plotting a new war to reassert control. Bathrat, whose only 10-years-old, says he's already been taught to handle a Kalashnikov and fire a machine gun.

Mr. BATHRAT STUGUSIVE (Third Grader): (Through translator) We don't want there to be a war in Ossetia, but if there will be a war, we will fight with tanks and machine guns. Russia will help us.

SHEETS: Georgia denies it plans a new war against South Ossentia, but tensions are still running high.

Last week, a top aide to Russia's prime minister said it was only a matter of time before South Ossetia was formally made part of Russia.

Lawrence Sheets, NPR News, Tskhinvali, Georgia.

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