Russian President Dmitri Medvedev signed a decree Tuesday making final Russia's decision to recognize the independence of two breakaway regions of Georgia. Russia's parliament had voted in support of the decision on Monday.
The Bush administration is not happy with Russia's decree. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called Russia's move "regrettable."
But there is strong support for independence in the regions, including South Ossetia. And the decision to recognize them as independent came much more quickly than the South Ossetians expected.
After the Russian parliament's decision, South Ossetians drove through the streets, waving Russian and Ossetian flags and spraying champagne to celebrate. Their goals — independence, then marriage with Russia — suddenly seemed within reach.
Mary Katchmadova sobbed at the news, caught between joy and the exhaustion of years of conflict. Why, she asked, has it taken so much time and so many lives to get everyone's attention?
Instead of celebrating, many Ossetians had more pressing needs — like getting the lights turned back on and fixing their bombed houses. Ultimately, Sofia Alborova said, Moscow is her only hope.
"Only Russia can save us. If it weren't for the Russian army, we would have been wiped out entirely," she said.
Russia has supported this isolated, impoverished region since it broke away from Georgia in the early 1990s. Like most people here, Deputy Foreign Minister Alan Pliev already has a Russian passport, even though the international community continues to insist his region is part of Georgia. He said Russia's recognition of South Ossetian independence will be followed by other countries, like China, Belarus and Syria.
"The first step is independence. Then we will determine whether we want to be with our brothers in North Ossetia and Russia or remain independent," Pliev said.
On a good day, South Ossetia's capital, Tskhinvali, was a sleepy backwater. The economy has survived on Moscow's handouts and on the illegal trade in drugs, arms and counterfeit $100 bills. Young people have left, and the population now is less than 70,000.
David Karsanov, 23, said he thinks everyone will return now that there is the promise of real independence. But he and other Ossetians said the thousands of Georgians who lived here until earlier this month cannot return.
In a backlash after Georgian troops came in, Russian and South Ossetian forces razed the Georgian villages on the outskirts of the capital. Looted and burned, they are now nothing more than heaps of rubble.