Many South Ossetians Hope For Union With Russia

Many people in South Ossetia hope their region will eventually rejoin with Russia. Earlier this week, Moscow formally recognized that breakaway region in Georgia as independent. Officials in South Ossetia are careful not to talk about unification. They say if they were to become part of Russia right away, the situation could backfire because it would look like annexation.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

When Russia sent tanks into Georgia, a part of the world little known in the West was suddenly much talked about but still barely understood. That place, South Ossetia, is deep in the mountains along the border of Russia, with a population that would fit into a stadium, about 70,000 people. And this week, they're celebrating their self-declared independence from Georgia. NPR's Anne Garrels is in South Ossetia, and reports that many people there are hoping to eventually be united with Russia.

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

ANNE GARRELS: South Ossetian President Eduard Kokoity, a former wrestling champion, returned home from Moscow a hero, and he was in fighting form as he addressed his countrymen in the capital central square. He blasted Georgia for trying to wipe out the Ossetian people. He threatened unspecified measures if Georgia continues to resist South Ossetian independence, and he blasted the West for double standards. Why, he asks, should Kosovo merit independence and not South Ossetia?

(Soundbite of applause, cheering)

GARRELS: There's no dissent on any of this here, and Ossetians isolated in their mountainous enclave seem unconcerned the fight over their tiny territory has roiled international relations. Sixty-six year old Dias Unuquevia(ph) says Russia will take care of everything.

Ms. DIAS UNUQUEVIA: (Through translator) We are sure that everything will be good. We trust in Russia.

GARRELS: And people here trust that independence is just the first step towards unification with their fellow Ossetians in Russia.

Mr. THOMAS DUYEV(ph) (South Ossetia Soldier): (Foreign language spoken)

GARRELS: Thomas Duyev, a South Ossetian soldier, has no doubt he will soon be a member of the Russian Army. But Ossetian officials are careful not to talk about unification right now. They say if they were to become part of Russia right away, the situation could backfire because it would look like annexation. South Ossetia has long had the formal trappings of independence, even its own foreign minister who admits he now has actually has some work to do. Officials are seeking a treaty of friendship with Russia.

They've offered to host a Russian military base, and have offered Moscow a piece of prime real estate for its new embassy. The fight for independence has removed the immediate Georgian threat. The Georgian Army is destroyed, and Georgians living here who resisted independence have been kicked out. They can no longer sabotage water lines to the capital. They can no longer harass traffic on the roads north to Russia. But most South Ossetians already have Russian passports. Independence will not attack much needed foreign investment, and Georgia will continue to block South Ossetia's border to the south, impeding trade.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

GARRELS: The windows in Robert Batalia's(ph) apartment building in the South Ossetian capital are shattered. The walls are pock-marked with bullet holes. He acknowledges the economy is all but destroyed. But he says the fight was worth it, and he dreams of a better future so his unborn child will never know the terror of war.

Mr. ROBERT BATALIA: (Foreign language spoken)

GARRELS: He wants the chance to live a normal life under Russian protection, and doesn't see why the West can't understand this.

Anne Garrels, NPR News, Tskhinvali.

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