South Ossetians Rally For Joining Russia

People in the Georgian breakaway region South Ossetia have been rallying in support of their independence — and possible union with Russia. Moscow says it will respect any decision the South Ossetians reach about their status.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Now let's go to South Ossetia where people have been rallying in support of their independence. Moscow says it will respect any decision the South Ossetians reach, which could mean an even sharper confrontation with the West. NPR's Gregory Feifer reports from the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali.

(Soundbite of people talking)

GREGORY FEIFER: Around 2,000 residents gathered in the center of their partly-ruined city under the hot sun yesterday afternoon - some waving Russian and South Ossetian flags.

(Soundbite of cheering)

FEIFER: When separatist President Eduard Kokoity emerged, the crowd clapped and shouted Russia.

President EDUARD KOKOITY (South Ossetia): (Foreign language spoken)

FEIFER: Kokoity said Russia had saved the South Ossetians from genocide during Georgia's attempt to retake its breakaway province earlier this month. He called Georgia's government a bloodthirsty fascist regime, and blamed its ally, the United States, for taking part in the Georgian attack. Then he said he'd appeal to Moscow to recognize South Ossetia's independence.

(Soundbite of applause)

FEIFER: South Ossetia's leaders say after independence they want their region to join Russia. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has already said Moscow would honor whatever the South Ossetian separatists decide. That would put Russia further at loggerheads with the United States, which says Georgia's territorial integrity, including its claim to South Ossetia, is inviolable.

After the rally, in Kokoity's nearby office, its windows shattered from the recent fighting, he said Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili had lost the rights to rule South Ossetia because he had attacked inhabitants of Georgia's own territory.

Pres. KOKOITY: (Through translator) If I was Saakashvili and I brought my people to the humiliation he has, I'd shoot myself. There's nothing human or masculine about him.

FEIFER: Georgia says Russia has long wanted to annex South Ossetia, and that Tbilisi was forced to attack Tskhinvali, only after Russia sent more than 100 armored vehicles into the region. Saakashvili has compared Russia's counterattack against Georgia and its ongoing occupation of its territory to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.

(Soundbite of cars moving)

FEIFER: Outside Tskhinvali, South Ossetian militias are stopping cars along a road passing several ethnic Georgian villages. Houses here are being burned and toppled with backhoes. But Kokoity denied any human rights abuses are being carried out, saying South Ossetia's Georgian inhabitants left their homes willingly.

Pres. KOKOITY: (Through translator) Anyway, the whole world is only concerned that big Russia attacked little Georgia. Why does no one care about the fate of the tiny South Ossetian population?

FEIFER: Kokoity dismissed reports that South Ossetian fighters have occupied villages beyond the South Ossetian border in Georgia proper, but added that South Ossetia has a right to destroy Georgian villages that took part in attacking South Ossetia.

(Soundbite of music)

FEIFER: Around dusk yesterday, the renowned conductor Valery Gergiev, who's Ossetian, staged a memorial concert in front of Tskhinvali's burned out parliament building. The orchestra played Shostakovich's seventh symphony under bright floodlights for live broadcast on Russian national television.

The conductor said he wanted the world to know the truth about what happened during Tskhinvali's bombardment. He compared it to the Nazi attack on Stalingrad in World War II and said 2,000 people had died. Official South Ossetian figures so far show only fewer than 150 died.

(Soundbite of music)

FEIFER: Grateful residents and Russian soldiers - some sitting on armored personnel carriers - attended the concert, the only place with light, in a city without electricity.

In Georgia, many believe Moscow is fanning deep feelings of grievance and hatred in South Ossetia for its own purposes. But in Tskhinvali, South Ossetians see Russia as their liberator and only protector.

Gregory Feifer, NPR News, Tskhinvali, South Ossetia.

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