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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.

There are only four roads leading into Tskhinvali, and three are under the control of the Georgian militia. The fourth, which leads through the Caucasus Mountains to Vladikavkaz in northern Ossetia, is the town's only real point of contact with the outside world. But it too is hazardous, because it passes through several Georgian villages, and Ossetian convoys carrying supplies from Vladikavkaz frequently are ambushed.

After the Georgian militia withdrew from Tskhinvali on Jan. 26, Soviet Interior Ministry troops took up positions between the two sides. After some haggling, an Armenian agreed to drive a reporter into the besieged town, crossing himself repeatedly as the car passed between the rival militia posts.

"Georgian Democracy is a Fascist Spree," announced the red banner strung up outside Communist Party headquarters in Tskhinvali. Inside, party officials were sweeping up the fragments of a bust of Soviet state founder Lenin that they said had been destroyed by Georgian police. The local party leader, Thorez Kolembegov, was arrested by the Georgian militia in January and is now sitting in jail in Tbilisi.

The town's electricity has been partially restored after being cut off for much of the past two months. Doctors at the local hospital said the power shortages forced them to postpone several urgent operations. Residents huddled around wood fires to keep warm in freezing temperatures because of the lack of central heating.

Georgian officials insist that the decision to cut off electricity to Tskhinvali was made by an independent power-supply union to prevent Ossetian separatists from manufacturing weapons. But a tour of factories in the city produced no evidence to support Georgian allegations that they had been converted to produce rifles and hand grenades.

Georgian mistrust of the Ossetians is deeply rooted. For Gamsakhurdia, along with most of his compatriots, the present conflict is a replay of what happened in 1920-22, when a fledgling Georgian state was crushed by the Red Army. The Ossetians sided with the Bolsheviks against the Menshevik government in Tbilisi during the Soviet civil war. In return, the Georgians say, the Ossetians were rewarded with an "autonomous region" within Georgia in addition to the autonomous republic of North Ossetia in Russia.

In return for protection from their larger Georgian neighbor, the Ossetians have repaid the Kremlin with devotion to the socialist cause. Tskhinvali is one of the few places in the Soviet Union where dictator Joseph Stalin is still revered. Local residents claim that Stalin, who was born just down the road in the Georgian town of Gori, was descended from Ossetians.

It is impossible to check Georgian claims that the Ossetian "extremists" are being armed by the Soviet military. What is clear, however, is that the Ossetians have access to some fairly sophisticated weapons. In a recent attack on the Georgian village of Avnevi, near Tskhinvali, Ossetian guerrillas used grenades, mortars and rockets.

"They couldn't have stolen such weapons from the army. That means they either bought them or were given them," said Givi Fadaviditze, recovering in a hospital in Gori after being shot in the leg.

The Georgians never made good communists, as Stalin recognized. During the "era of stagnation," as the years before Mikhail Gorbachev became Soviet Communist Party leader in 1985 are officially labeled here, Tbilisi was the unchallenged wheeler-dealer capital of the Soviet Union. There are more private cars in Tbilisi than in any other Soviet city.

The southern climate, Georgian temperament and fragmented ethnic mix give Tbilisi an almost Levantine feel. This is a city of violent passions, elaborate conspiracy theories and some remarkably good restaurants. The collapse of communism has spawned dozens of political factions organized on the basis of personal loyalty rather than ideology.

In the end, all Georgian politics boils down to personalities. Gamsakhurdia, 51, a nationalist who was jailed during the 1970s for anti-Communist activity, is the son of one of Georgia's best-known writers. The man who was once his closest ally in the dissident movement, Georgi Chanturia, is now his bitterest foe.

His voice practically hoarse from denouncing Gamsakhurdia at public meetings, Chanturia describes the Georgian president as "a maniac," a "fascist," a "robot," a "psychopath" -- and a one-time "KGB agent," for good measure. He claims Moscow is using Gamsakhurdia to discredit the Georgian nationalist movement, calculating that his rule will swiftly lead to political and economic chaos.

After boycotting last fall's elections on hard-line nationalist grounds, Chanturia now criticizes Gamsakhurdia for the persecution of ethnic minorities, such as the Ossetians. He also claims there are more than 70 political prisoners in Georgia, the highest figure since Stalin's day.

The biggest and most startling change in Tbilisi is the disappearance of Lenin. His towering granite statue -- once the obligatory focal point of any Soviet city -- has vanished. Lenin Square has been renamed Freedom Square.

"The Communists' role is zero," said Gamsakhurdia in an interview. "They practically don't exist. All they have is a huge 11-story building occupied by 70 bureaucrats. Their chief will come here soon, and I will demand that he give it to us. If he doesn't, we will take it by law."

Formally, the Communists are the main opposition group in the parliament. But they are so demoralized that they end up voting with Gamsakhurdia's Round Table on most major issues, for fear of offending the predominantly Georgian electorate. The party has gone through three leaders in six months.

Several leading Georgian Communists have left Tbilisi for Moscow to become advisers to former foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze, who was Georgia's party boss throughout the 1970s. Gamsakhurdia says they are plotting "the second occupation of Georgia" by the Kremlin. "The great democrat Shevardnadze would like to return here, but nobody supports him," he says with a sneer.

Chanturia also suspects that Shevardnadze, who resigned as foreign minister in December warning of an "approaching dictatorship," wants to meddle in Georgian politics. "Shevardnadze is a very clever politician, very calculating. He never bets on just one person, always two or three. He is waiting to see what happens here," he said.

In public, the Kremlin has displayed political restraint in Georgia, turning down repeated Ossetian calls for the declaration of a state of emergency. Gorbachev clearly fears that a crackdown in this most volatile region could provoke massive bloodshed. At the same time, he is probably calculating that continued turmoil among the Ossetians and other ethnic minorities will pressure the Georgian independence movement into making concessions. Force can always be used as a last resort.

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