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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The Bush administration is not happy with the latest Russian move to effectively dismember one of its neighbors. Russia's parliament voted to recognize the independence of two breakaway regions of Georgia on Monday. And today Russia's president signed a decree making that decision final.

The American Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice immediately called this regrettable, but there is strong support for independence in these regions, including the one we're going to next, South Ossetia. The decision to recognize them as independent came much more quickly than the South Ossetians expected.

NPR's Anne Garrels is there.

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ANNE GARRELS: Like a wedding parade, South Ossetians strode through the streets waving Russian and Ossetian flags and spraying champagne to celebrate the Russian parliament's decision. Their goals, independence then marriage with Russia, suddenly seemed within reach.

Ms. MARY KACHMADOVA(ph) (South Ossetia): (Speaking foreign language)

GARRELS: Mary Kachmadova sobbed at the news, caught between joy and the exhaustion of years of conflict. Why, she asked, has it taken so long? Why has it taken so many lives to get everyone's attention?

Instead of celebrating, many Ossetians had more pressing needs: getting the lights back on and fixing their bombed houses. Ultimately, Sofia Alborga(ph) says Moscow is her only hope.

Ms. SOFIA ALBORGA (South Ossetia): (Through translator) Only Russia can save us. If it weren't for the Russian army, we would have been wiped out entirely.

GARRELS: Russia has supported this isolated, impoverished region since it broke away from Georgia in the early '90s. Like most people here, Deputy Foreign Minister Alam Pleva(ph) already has a Russian passport, even though the international community continues to insist his region is part of Georgia. He says Russian recognition of South Ossetian independence will be followed by other countries like China, Belarus and Syria.

Deputy Foreign Minister ALAM PLEVA (South Ossetia): (Through translator) 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.

GARRELS: On a good day, the South Ossetian 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. The population now is less than 70,000. Twenty-three-old David Karsonov(ph) believes everyone will return now there's the promise of real independence.

Mr. DAVID KARSONOV (South Ossetia): (Speaking foreign language)

GARRELS: But he and every other Ossetian interviewed say 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're now nothing more than heaps of rubble.

With each stage of this struggle, positions harden. Rumors become facts. The latest? Black American soldiers accompanied Georgian troops two weeks ago. Everyone repeats the same story, though there's no evidence to substantiate it. Ossetian officials describe how Georgian soldiers ripped open the bellies of pregnant Ossetian women. Despite the lack of any proof, this is now part of Ossetia mythology.

Constantine Golovkolgok(ph) is a commissar for the youth movement attached to Moscow's ruling party. He's in Tskhinvali to help pave the way for independence.

Mr. CONSTANTINE GOLOVKOLGOK (Youth Movement Commissar): (Speaking foreign language)

GARRELS: He has no doubt President Medvedev would recognize South Ossetia soon. While it might worsen relations with the West, he says Russia's prestige and honor are at stake.

Anne Garrels, NPR News, Tskhinvali, South Ossetia.

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