WORLD

A dirty little war

Ethnic violence divides Georgia

MALCOLM GRAY May 20 1991
WORLD

A dirty little war

Ethnic violence divides Georgia

MALCOLM GRAY May 20 1991

A dirty little war

WORLD

THE SOVIET UNION

Ethnic violence divides Georgia

The dead lie buried in makeshift graves in the front yard of Elementary School Number 5 in the Soviet Georgian enclave of South Ossetia. There are 34 in all, killed in ethnic strife since last January, when Georgian militia units occupied the area after the republic’s parliament revoked South Ossetia’s declaration of independence. The militiamen are gone now, but the threat of ambush by Georgian guerrillas along the road to the local cemetery has kept residents from giving their dead a proper burial. “The whole town is becoming a cemetery,” said Dina Djedjolva, a 35-year-old elementary-school teacher in the embattled city of Tskhinvali (population 65,000). The southern republic’s dirty little war has claimed more than 60 lives over the past four months. And last week, in the aftermath of an April 29 earthquake that killed at least 144 people in the region, the crackle of gunfire in the distance was graphic evidence of the continuing struggle of citizens in mountainous South Ossetia. “We used to live in peace with our Georgian neighbors,” Djedjolva said. “But now they want to drive us out of here— and we will not go.”

Those words tell a familiar story in the Soviet Union’s troubled Caucasus Mountain region: as the Kremlin’s once-rigid control has weakened, violent ethnic clashes have erupted between Armenia and neighboring Azerbaijan, and within Soviet Georgia. For the more than 100,000 residents of South Ossetia, most of whom are Moslem, the presence of Soviet soldiers provides an uncertain buffer between them and the Georgian nationalists who seek to keep the enclave as part of their homeland. In fact, the feud between the Georgians and Ossetians is at least two centuries old. But it has flared again as the tiny sect’s desire to retain local autonomy has collided with Georgia’s desire to shake off Communist rule. For Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, Georgia’s demand for freedom threatens to tear through the centre of a sprawling and polyglot union. And unlike Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, the rebellious Baltic republics that the U.S.S.R. forcibly annexed in 1940, Georgia became part of the Soviet Union in 1921, only four years after the Bolshevik Revolution.

Now, the republic’s president says that he wants to foster a market economy in the fertile land where the ancient Silk Road trade route still links Asia and Europe. Zviad Gamsakhurdia, the overwhelming favorite to retain his post in a May 26 election, is the most widely known politician among Georgia’s 5.4 million residents. But in the quarrelsome realm of the republic’s politics, where one measure of prominence is the number of bodyguards that a leader commands, the 52-year-old Gamsakhurdia is variously described as either a dictatorin-waiting, or the only man capable of taking on Moscow—and winning.

Certainly, in the streets of Tskhinvali, where bumed-out houses and concrete barricades are mute reminders of the fighting that flickers in and around the South Ossetian capital, most people mention Gamsakhurdia’s name only in tones of fear and loathing. Visitors to the besieged town, which has suffered lengthy electrical power blackouts since Feb. 1 and which is chronically short of food, are invariably shown stark evidence of Gamsakhurdia’s treatment of ethnic minorities. The city’s ransacked drama theatre is one exhibit. Georgian militia units lived in the building during their three-week occupation of the city last January. The Georgians withdrew after the Kremlin threatened to impose direct rule in the republic, but the townspeople have left the occupiers’ vandalism untouched—including a decapitated marble statue of the 19th century Ossetian poet Kosta Khetagurov. And nearby, haunting photographs of the 34 Ossetians killed in ethnic strife stare out from a memorial collage in the windows of the elementary school.

But outside the city, Georgians relate their own tales of Ossetian violence against their villages. Last week, near a heavily sandbagged highway police station that now serves as a checkpoint for Soviet interior ministry soldiers, groups of Georgians huddled beside an armored personnel carrier whose olive-green bulk partially blocked the wind that was sweeping down from the foothills. They were waiting for two other armored vehicles to arrive and escort a 20-truck convoy of refugees to Georgian villages on the other side of Tskhinvali. One villager, who wished to remain anonymous, said that he had already endured a fourhour wait. But he added: “We would not get through the city alive if those soldiers were not with us.”

In the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, 85 km to the southeast, nationalists cite local parallels between the current violence around Tskhinvali and the upheavals of a civil war that wracked the Soviet Union after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. At that time, the Ossetians sided with the eventually victorious Red Army. And after the Red Army crushed a fledgling Georgian state in 1921, the Ossetians were rewarded with the enclave in Georgia as well as North Ossetia—a larger homeland across the border with Russia. Now, according to Gamsakhurdia and other Georgian nationalists, the Kremlin is fomenting ethnic unrest in order to weaken Georgia’s independence drive. In fact, suspicion of Moscow is so widespread in Tbilisi that Gamsakhurdia and others have suggested, however implausibly, that the Soviets used special technology to set off the April 29 earthquake as part of a plot to destabilize the region.

Gamsakhurdia, who has traded the jeans and casual shirts of his dissident days for carefully tailored, doublebreasted suits, is the forceful leader of the Round Table. That is a loose, anticommunist coalition that won 155 of 250 seats in the republic’s legislature last fall in the first genuine multiparty election in Soviet history. Since then, under the direction of a man who has been in and out of jail since his first arrest at the age of 17 for disseminating anti-Soviet propaganda, legislators have been busy eradicating the symbols of Soviet rule. To that end, the parliament has dropped the words “Soviet” and “socialist” from the republic’s constitution, removed the obligatory statue of Vladimir Lenin from central Tbilisi and approved legislation declaring Georgia’s independence day to be April 9. That date was carefully chosen: it marked the twoyear anniversary of a bloody incident in the capital, when Soviet troops armed with sharpened shovels attacked a peaceful demonstration, killing 20 people.

Gamsakhurdia’s friends and foes alike acknowledge that such actions as creating a new national flag (with the colors maroon, white and black) are easy steps in the move towards independence. More difficult decisions still lie ahead. According to Georgian economist Valerian Advadze, a presidential candidate, the republican government has done little to dismantle the economic structures of the former Communist regime, restore private ownership of land or shift to a market economy. But Gamsakhurdia and his followers argue that such problems as the South Ossetian conflict take precedence over economic and agrarian reform. And in a short break from earthquake relief work last week, Gamsakhurdia told Maclean ’s that an independent Georgia would thrive under a market system, even though it would have to pay hard currency for the Soviet oil and gas that it currently uses. Said Gamsakhurdia: “It is hard to make changes quickly, as we have been trapped in the Soviet economy for 70 years.”

In that regard, even many of Gamsakhurdia’s critics say that they are ready to see Georgia produce more grain and less wine, tea and citrus fruits—its primary role in the controlled and specialized Soviet economy. They are more concerned, they say, with Gamsakhurdia’s actions since he assumed office last fall. They cite his tight control over local media, a tendency to regard political opponents as enemies of Georgia and his failure to find a political solution to the South Ossetian issue as indications that he is bent on becoming a dictator. But Gamsakhurdia scoffs at these suggestions, insisting that he wants his children to grow up in a democratic, Christian Georgia. But on South Ossetia, the president is unwavering. “It is Georgian land,” he says. With opposing sentiments just as strong in South Ossetia, and the Kremlin still reluctant to loosen its grip on the empire, the bloody clashes in and around Tskhinvali are a formidable stumbling block on Georgia’s road to independence—and another headache for the beleaguered Gorbachev.

MALCOLM GRAY in Tskhinvali