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Five years on, Georgia still counting cost of Russia war

05 august 2013, 11:20
0
©REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin
©REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin
The 2008 war between Georgia and Russia over the separatist region of South Ossetia may have only lasted five days but five years on, Amiran Gugutishvili is still counting the cost, AFP reports.

Snaking through the burnt-out shell of what was once his cousin's house are four-foot (1.2-metre) high coils of razor wire that divide the Russian-backed breakaway territory from Georgian-controlled land.

The wire also cuts Gugutishvili off from the fruit orchards that once provided his livelihood.

"It feels like I am living in a prison," Gugutishvili, 67, told AFP, pointing at the tangled grapevines that he says are now only patrolled by armed Russian border guards with dogs.

"There is no freedom -- what sort of freedom can this be?"

On the night of August 7-8, 2008, Georgia's pro-Western President Mikheil Saakashvili launched an offensive to reclaim breakaway region South Ossetia only to see Russian forces sweep into Georgia.

Until then, the division between Georgia and the self-proclaimed territory of South Ossetia was ill-defined.

Despite a brutal conflict in the early 1990s that saw the breakaway territory declare independence and set up its own administration, the region was a patchwork of Georgian and Ossetian villages where people on both sides often worked together and intermarried.

Now though, five years on from the war, links between the two sides have been almost totally severed and Russian forces continue to build new fences and lay razor wire.

"No party to this war has got what it was seeking," admitted Georgia's Reintegration Minister Paata Zakareishbili whose job is officially aimed at reintegrating the territory Tbilisi no longer controls.

-- 'It brought more suffering' --

Russia officially recognised South Ossetia -- along with another breakaway Georgian region Abkhazia -- as independent states and Moscow now has thousands of troops stationed in the strategic region.

Half a decade after the war, Georgia's turbulent political landscape is now transformed and the wisdom of Saakashvili's decision to launch the fateful offensive is coming under ever greater scrutiny.

Once pre-eminent, with his second and last term ending in October, Saakashvili is now a lame duck president after his party lost out to a coalition headed by billionaire Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili.

Ivanishvili, who made his vast fortune in Russia in the early 1990s, has made normalising relations with Moscow his foreign policy priority and pledged to improve ties with the separatist authorities.

Zakareishbili, a member of the coalition that ousted Saakashvili's United National Movement party from power at parliamentary elections last year, said the president's attempt to settle the festering territorial dispute backfired spectacularly.

"In the end, it brought him an unexpected outcome -- a full-scale war and more refugees, more human suffering," Zakareishbili said.

Sitting on the porch of her concrete house, one of around 2,000 built by the government in the settlement of Tserovani for Georgians forced to flee their homes during the war, Lila Beridze said the past five years have been a constant struggle.

"Obviously being able to live in the town where you were born is better," said Beridze, who fled her home in the town of Akhalgori when it was seized by Russian and Ossetian forces.

Once a kindergarten teacher, Beridze says she now struggles to make ends meet with the roughly $60 (45 euro) she says she receives each month from the government.

-- 'Georgia cannot cross red lines' --

Georgia's new government has mooted a possible investigation into the handling of the war but officials in charge at the time remain adamant that the fight was forced upon them.

"It was the moment when one forgets everything personal and could only think of what can be done to help your country in the face of an existential threat," Eka Tkeshelashvili, Georgia's foreign minister at the time of the war, told AFP.

Any move to accept the status of the breakaway territories is unthinkable though, and Ivanishvili's pledge to carry on the previous government's pro-Western course means any optimism is limited.

"Georgia cannot cross certain red lines," says George Khutsishvili, director of the Tbilisi-based International Center on Conflict Negotiation.

"The hope is not growing yet but it is also not vanishing -- it is here and we are waiting to see how the process develops."

Meanwhile, government estimates in the aftermath of the conflict put the cost of infrastructure damage at around $1 billion, while everything from foreign investor confidence to tourism took a blow.

While the economy slowed in the aftermath of the fighting, some $4.5 billion of US and EU post-war aid helped to prop up the country.

For those living along the de facto border though, the situation is unlikely to improve any time soon.

In the divided village of Khurvaleti, razor wire stops Gocha Markeshvili visiting the cemetery where his relatives lay buried and the Ossetian neighbours they lived side by side with for generations.

"All those who had somewhere to go left," Markeshvili, 28, says, looking at the curls of wire running along the end of his garden.

"I didn't so I had to stay behind."

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