Nationalists, Minority Battle in Soviet Georiga

By Michael Dobbs
Thursday, August 14, 2008; 4:10 PM

Post reporter Michael Dobbs's commentary on the current conflict between Russia and Georgia is informed by his reporting in the Ossetian capital in 1991. The Post first published this dispatch on March 21 of that year.

TSKHINVALI, U.S.S.R. -- As long as Georgia exists, the cause of socialism is in mortal danger. -- Joseph Stalin

The front line in the battle for the preservation of the world's second superpower as a union of Soviet socialist republics runs through this war-ravaged provincial town, nestled in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains in Soviet Georgia.

Now in its third month, the siege of Tskhinvali has already claimed at least 40 lives. Electricity and heating have been cut off for weeks, and food is in desperately short supply. Roads to the town have been sealed off by rival militia units. The streets are littered with the debris of burned-out buses and barricades. At night, the surrounding hills echo with the sound of gunfire.

On one side of the Soviet Union's latest ethnic battlefront are about 90,000 Ossetians, members of a tiny ethnic minority that has traditionally been loyal to Moscow. On the other are Georgia's newly elected nationalist leaders, who accuse the Kremlin of exploiting Ossetian discontent to thwart their drive for independence.

"Moscow is waging a war against us in order to punish us because we refuse to sign the new union treaty and fight for independence," said Georgian President Zviad Gamsakhurdia, a veteran dissident, in his office in Tbilisi. "The Soviet army is fighting against us, together with the Ossetian extremists. They give the Ossetians new technology, rockets, weapons."

The present crisis grew to serious proportions in December, shortly after parliamentary elections in Georgia were won convincingly by the secessionist "Round Table" coalition led by Gamsakhurdia. Angered by Ossetian attempts to unite with their compatriots across the border in the Soviet Russian republic, the Georgian parliament formally liquidated the Ossetians' political autonomy. Georgian militia units were sent to Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia.

"We are much more worried by Georgian imperialism than Russian imperialism," said Gerasim Khugaev, an Ossetian leader here. "It is closer to us, and we feel its pressure all the time. The Georgians are conducting a chauvinist-nationalist policy against us. They want to drive us out of here completely."

Reduced to its simplest level, the battle for Tskhinvali is being fought between those who want the Soviet Union to survive in its present form and those who do not. Situated at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, Georgia has long been regarded as a much more integral part of the Soviet "empire" than, say, the Baltic republics, which were annexed only in 1940. Tales of Russia's conquest of the Caucasus region in the 19th century form a staple part of Russian literature.

But this is also a war in which notions of right and wrong, oppressors and oppressed, have become impossibly tangled with centuries-old ethnic disputes. There seems little doubt that the Kremlin has been using minority grievances as a means of bringing pressure to bear on rebellious Soviet republics, such as Georgia. At the same time, Georgia's own treatment of its ethnic minorities has drawn sharp criticism from Western human-rights activists.

During a three-week occupation of Tskhinvali in January, Georgian militia units ransacked the Ossetian national theater. The plaster statue of Ossetia's national poet, Kosta Khetagurov, was decapitated. Monuments to Ossetians who fought with Soviet troops in World War II were smashed to pieces and thrown into the river.

The Ossetians have repaid the Georgians in kind. About 10,000 Georgian residents of Tskhinvali have fled their homes in fear for their lives. Armed Ossetian bands have fired on Georgian villages. The news that six Georgians, including several policemen, had been killed during a recent shootout was received with grim satisfaction by some Ossetians.

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