Life is quiet now in South Ossetia, but economic and social problems remain
Seven years have passed since the war of 2008. Immediately after the war, people were grateful for the feeling of just being safe from bombing. Georgia is still there, but no-one thinks about that. No-one sits waiting for an attack, bombs, or kidnappings from over there. There are next to no links between people on either side of the border, apart from some family ties.
But over those five awful days, the city of Tskhinvali was turned into a pile of ruins like in some post-apocalyptic movie. The traces of this terrible war were visible for a long time and the authorities were incredibly slow to start reconstruction, even though Russian money poured in. Oddly enough, much of the reconstruction funds seem to have been “mislaid”. Several criminal cases have been initiated by the South Ossetia public prosecutor against Russian citizens who previously held government positions in South Ossetia and are suspected of siphoning the cash into their pockets. But nothing has been done about this because the perpetrators are safely back in Russia now.
Locals joke that we should build a monument to these missing Russian millions. It’s a dirty story and, as usual, it’s the little people who have lost out. Those who hold power or are close to it have done pretty well for themselves. Civil servants distributed Russian funds among themselves and the contractors involved in the reconstruction. Some very nice houses were built for certain well-connected people.
In 2015, the government was supposed to build 25 blocks of flats. However, with only nineteen of these started, the government has stated that the housing programme is completed. Apparently, there are “issues” needing “additional checks” before building the last six in 2016.
A new block of luxury housing with 11 flats was built in Tskhinvali town centre on the spot where a previous block of flats had burned down in 2008. It is common knowledge that the top-floor flats were to be given to two bodyguards of the ex-president Eduard Kokoity, while ordinary people were forced to sit and wait – sometimes for years in tents – for the keys to their own new flats. However, following controversial elections in 2011-2012, when Kokoity was eventually forced out of power, these two bodyguards were killed and so these flats just remained empty until some poor families who lost their homes during the war and had nowhere else to go moved themselves in. In early 2013, the court ordered these people to be evicted, as these flats were being claimed by the families of the two dead bodyguards who can hardly be classified as being in dire need of housing because they live pretty well in North Ossetia.
When the bailiffs arrived to enforce the court’s decision, there was quite a stand-off with the Lokhty and Sanakoty families. They say they had a verbal agreement that as soon as the state provides them with decent housing of their own, they will move out. But nothing is happening, so they are staying put. “Where can we go? How much longer do we have to wait? This is no way to treat people; we have three children with the youngest just one year old. We have no intention of leaving before the government gives us our own house. We would be quite happy to have one of the new houses in the smart Moskovskiy neighbourhood [a relatively new suburb where the houses were distributed to cronies of the previous government]. Many stand empty while we have had to live in rented accommodation for seven years. When we get our own flats, then we’ll move out of here”.
At the same time, the mayor of Tskhinvali, Alan Alborov, recently said that every application for housing would be reviewed on its own merits, which is puzzling, to say the least. The housing committee has received 1,680 applications from large families, families of the war-wounded and dead, veterans of World War II, the disabled, and others. He has said that the final version of this list will be made public so that people can see that housing goes to those who really need it. This issue will be dealt with properly once and for all in 2016, apparently. But we have heard for years about supposed measures put in place to stop those close to power from jumping the queue and obtaining housing. We have quite a few questions to put to the committee itself, which since 2008 has given new houses to people who not only already owned their own flats, but were not even permanently resident in South Ossetia at that time. No-one is holding their breath on these government promises.
Generally speaking, economic ties with Georgia are non-existent now. To get there you would have to take the roundabout route through North Ossetia on the Georgian Military Highway. So all our imports (like food and clothing) come from Russia, especially from cities like Vladikavkaz and Pyatigorsk. This is expensive, because it all has to come over a mountain road 200 kilometres long. Nevertheless, there are many shops here, mostly selling groceries; it is difficult to understand how they can all compete with each other. There are new shops opening all the time, in every suburb. The main street of Tskhinvali is lined with busy shops, pharmacies, and boutiques. All this looks strange against a background of general poverty here, but there they are, so there must be people with money to burn and capital to invest here. These are people who long ago left South Ossetia, but who smelled the money after the war, so they returned to get themselves a cushy job and an easy life. These “returnees” are despised. Every Friday, they leave for the north, which is where their real interests lie. One official was known to claim expense allowances every weekend to go back to Vladikavkaz to see his wife.
We used to have big factories here: Emalprovod, the Vibromashina textile mill, and a clothes factory. All of them, apart from the clothes factory, stopped working back in the 1990s. The buildings that haven’t crumbled are rented out to locals for use as warehouses, garages, workshops and so on. These are people who honestly pay their taxes to the state, but these taxes make up a tiny fraction of the state budget, which is almost covered 100 percent by Russian subsidies. The lucky ones get their project funded by this Russian “investment programme”; the less fortunate cannot get investment from anywhere else. Loans to small businesses are a rare and pretty murky affair.
There has long been a clothes market held in the grounds of the clothes factory known as “Istanbul”, as most of the goods sold there come from Turkey. The factory itself – which at one point employed 1,200 people – was forced to shut down in 1991 due to the war and general economic malaise. But in 2011 it reopened thanks to investment from a well-known Ossetian businessman, Taimuraz Bolloev – founder of the famous Baltika beer company in St Petersburg. Now it is called “BTK-4” and it makes uniforms and other special clothing on Russian government contracts. Working conditions there are good: it employs about 100 women on modern sewing machines. There is free transport to and from work laid on for employees, free lunch, and other social benefits.
What else has changed since the war? Of course some things have, though not as much or as quickly as we would like.Civil servants grumble that the people are overly negative about developments; that they appear not to notice improvements like increased salaries and pensions, renovated buildings and squares. Maybe our expectations are too high. But we have switched our attention to social problems and unemployment. There are never-ending problems with the water and heating systems everywhere, especially in rural areas.
On the other hand, the roads are finally being mended. Most streets, particularly those in the centre, are tarmacked, but often there are no drains. Therefore, from time to time they lay new asphalt and we are lucky if they do it properly. But new roads are not necessarily a good thing, as we have found out. Young men buy old cheap foreign cars and drive them around at crazy speeds. Recently, one of them ran over and killed two women who were on their way to buy bread. Few drivers bother to signal properly. The rules of the road are broken at every turn, so much so that in the mornings the traffic police are forced to stand on the busiest intersections and stop cars so that children can go to school safely.
In outlying villages in rural areas, farmers are especially pleased at these new roads as it now no longer takes four or five hours to get to market. However, in 2011, Russian troops started building a physical border fence with barbed wire and sandbags. Part of it now goes through the middle of several villages, cutting off some farmers from their own fields and irrigation systems, and communities from their ancient cemeteries and churches. In a way, it used to help as they at least knew where the “border” was, but recently it has been creeping southwards, a few centimetres a day. There are occasional arrests of people crossing it “illegally” – they get taken to Tskhinvali and then released on payment of a fine.
Healthcare is a major issue. It is technically speaking free, but after the 2008 war, diseases like diabetes, cancer, and asthma rocketed. And there is also a huge widespread problem with depression due to prolonged exposure to stress. This hits men especially hard. Much of the male population, especially in rural areas, used to be employed by the Ministry of Defence before 2008. When the recognition process started, there were defence cuts and young men were left with nothing. They are no longer used to working on the farm and do not know what to do with themselves. This has a knock-on effect which means that many cannot get married because they have no means to provide for a family, which is very important here.
Everybody has a Russian internal passport round here – they were giving them out even before the 2008 war. Back then, even some Georgians used to slip into Tskhinvali to buy a Russian passport on the quiet so they could go north to find work. Of course, many Ossetians have left too – in search of work, study, and a better future. In Soviet times, there was a population of around 100,000 people in South Ossetia; now it’s barely 25,000. Either people have a cushy government job or something precarious in the private or informal sector. Or they leave for pastures new. And who can blame them? The average salary is 10–14,000 roubles, and the average pension is around 6,000 roubles, while the official cost of the consumer basket is 4,450 roubles. So, in order to feed their family, many people have two or even three jobs. The Begizoviy are a typical, large Ossetian family. They have three kids under five. Alan gets up every day at six in the morning to go to work on a building site. He cannot afford to take any days off. “It is clear that you cannot live on just one salary, so you have to constantly look for odd jobs. It would be good if my wife could work, but finding a job is tough. There are no vacancies in the civil service”, he says.
In South Ossetia youth unemployment has reached an unprecedented level. It is mostly the older generation that has taken up the coveted civil service jobs, although recently the president signed a decree that said that all civil servants who have reached the age of 65 should retire. So far, this decree has not been applied in practice and it remains to be seen if it is applied to all civil servants, regardless of political connections. But if and when it is applied, this decree should go some way to stemming the exodus of young people to Russia and elsewhere for high salaries and better prospects.
But the most important thing is that life in South Ossetia is quiet now. No longer are we afraid of attacks or of one day hearing that a friend or relative has been killed. A peaceful life is coming into being now. Yes, there are flaws in the way certain things are done, but we now have the hope that young people will have the opportunity to put the country back on its feet.
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The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.