One year on from their conflict over South Ossetia, Georgia denies Russian accusations it is “aggressively re-arming”.
|Russian and South Ossetian forces say they are ready if Georgia attempts to invade [EPA]|
A year after the war between Russia and Georgia over the breakaway region of South Ossetia, tensions in the region are high once more.
Both Georgia and South Ossetia have accused each other of conducting cross-border attacks and it is feared that an escalation in violence could lead to a new conflict.
A short distance from Tskinval, the South Ossetian capital, is the Ergenti border with Georgia.
Here, Russian and South Ossetian flags fly side-by-side metres away from the Georgian frontier.
After the war, ethnic Georgians who fled South Ossetia during the fighting were allowed to travel back to visit their former homes.
But this week Eduard Kokoity, the president of the breakaway region, declared the border closed, pinning the reason on the potential threat from Georgia of the H1N1 influenza virus.
Many feel that the decision was motivated more by an increase in the alleged cross border attacks by Georgian forces.
“While the Georgian forces fail to be condemned internationally” Murat Dzhioyev, the South Ossetian foreign minister, says, “and while the Georgian leadership that committed these acts is still in power, the danger of a repetition of the aggression still exists.”
In South Ossetia’s general prosecutors office I’m shown the remains of a rocket propelled grenade. The letters on the side of it are written in Russian.
These weapons are used by forces on both sides of the divide, but South Ossetian officials claim the grenade was fired from Georgia into South Ossetian territory on Monday.
This, they say, will be added to mounting evidence of “Georgian provocations”.
Georgia denies the charges, accusing South Ossetia of attacks on Georgian forces.
According to Tbilisi, South Ossetia and Russia are using the evidence as a pretext for another war and to strengthen Russian influence in the region.
It’s difficult to assess who is attacking who, but the population of South Ossetia is growing increasingly anxious about the possibility of an escalation in violence.
“People are very worried that there will be a new war,” says David Sanakoyev, the human rights ombudsman to South Ossetia’s president.
“The only comforting fact is that Russia’s ministry of defence has promised to defend the population from any possible attacks.”
When the Georgian troops marched on South Ossetia to reclaim the breakaway territory last year, South Ossetain forces were vastly outnumbered until the arrival of Russian forces.
|Fears are growing that the escalating tensions could spark a new conflict [AFP]|
Moscow says that 800 Russian troops remain on the territory, numbers which are expected to double by the end of the year.
The vast majority of South Ossetians have close ties with Russia. Most are Russian passport holders and would prefer to be part of their larger neighbour.
“Independence is good, but Russia is our past, present and future,” one man tells me. So far, only Russia and Nicaragua recognise South Ossetian independence.
In the hills above the South Ossetian capital, soldiers conduct training exercises. A burnt-out Georgian armoured personal carrier is used as target practice.
Many of these men fought in last years’ war and are prepared to fight again.
“Judging from the statements from the Georgian president,” says Major Robert Bibylov, “there is still a threat and we’re always ready for it”.
And should Georgia plan to retake the breakaway state, the message from Moscow is that Russia is ready too.