On the eve of the first anniversary of Georgia’s invasion of South Ossetia, the republic’s President Eduard Kokoity tells RIA Novosti about the investigation of that tragedy, the progress in rebuilding the infrastructure and about who is awaiting Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili in Tskhinval.
Question: In July 2009, the head of the Investigative Committee of the Prosecutor General’s Office of Russia disclosed the documented number of South Ossetian civilians who had died as a result of the Georgian aggression: 162 people dead. However, immediately after the war the republic’s authorities claimed ten times that number, about 1,500 dead. Why such a difference in figures? How many people actually died?
Answer: What happened in August 2008 was a great tragedy for our small nation. I sometimes feel that the question is blasphemous. It would have been a tragedy for us even if two people and not two thousand had died. Investigation is in progress and fresh details of that Georgian crime are emerging. You gave the official toll for today. The figures differ not because somebody wanted to inflate them or picture it as a global disaster.
The tragedy was global for our people. Our people faced total destruction, extermination. I cannot bring myself to measure this in figures.
Initially the data that was coming in was based on the fact that there were refugees who crossed the border, people were starting looking for their folks and making calls. They started filing applications. The applications coming from various directions were used to track people down. Later, after the end of the aggression, after Russia had practically saved our nation, it turned out that the people presumed dead were alive.
The figure you gave is the current toll, but it may grow.
You are talking only about civilians, but there were also soldiers who died. Many citizens of South Ossetia died and were buried on Russian territory. Many relatives of the victims, considering our national mentality, did not even file for compensation.
Q: Last October you said that the Prosecutor’s Office of South Ossetia would put Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili on the wanted list as a war criminal. Why did you not do it?
A: The South Ossetian law enforcement agencies have opened a criminal case against Saakashvili and all those who had organized the aggression against our people. This is a crime under international law. So our law-enforcement bodies are working on that and the issue is still on the agenda. Saakashvili is a criminal who must be behind bars and we will work toward that end.
He is treated like all the other criminals who organized the aggression and genocide of the Ossetian people; he is on that list. They are all international criminals as far as we are concerned. We have criminal charges against him as the person who was responsible for this, who gave the commands, who ordered the storm of Tskhinval and declared war on South Ossetia, who implemented Operation Clean Field together with his subordinates. And we will seek to bring him to justice.
Q: After the August war South Ossetia claimed that as a result of shelling 80% of the buildings in Tskhinval and 50% of residential houses had been destroyed. How is the reconstruction going? How many houses and administrative buildings have been restored? How many are still to be restored?
A: 70% of residential stock and 80% of administrative buildings were destroyed. Everything is being done, jointly with the Russian Ministry of Regional Development, to restore private houses in the first place. During his recent trip to South Ossetia Russian President Dmitry Medvedev fully backed the position of the republic’s leadership that private housing should be restored first. We have suspended the construction of administrative buildings in order to concentrate all the resources on rebuilding private houses, rebuilding the war-devastated economy for the benefit of the people, as well as the critical elements of infrastructure (I am referring to the Edis-Tskhinval water pipeline and all the urban infrastructure).
Overall, we will build more than 360 houses this year, not counting the gift from the Moscow Government, the Moskovsky district in Tskhinval. Some houses are subject to demolition and some can be partially restored. We take into account the wishes of the victims. The process of coordination is going on. In any case the main task is to build homes and we will build them. I am sure we will have very good results to report by the end of the year.
As a matter of fact, we have planned everything three years ahead. This year we will accommodate the neediest, regardless of whether they live in Tskhinval or in the villages. Some fantasized that Tskhinval could be restored in two months and a whole new city could be built. If it were that easy people would be building a new city every two months all over the place. But that is unrealistic. Breaking is not building. You also have to bear in mind that many houses were destroyed in Tskhinval and in South Ossetian villages in 1989-1992. We must give thought to them too. We have to bring back the refugees.
Q: There is no clearly marked border between South Ossetia and Georgia. Will South Ossetia, with Russia’s help, build a fully-fledged border, which Russian border guards are helping to protect today? If so, what may be the cost and would it perhaps require an increased Russian military presence in South Ossetia?
A: The state border of South Ossetia is already securely protected jointly with Russia after our countries signed a relevant agreement. Yes, there are problem areas in our republic which will be guarded jointly. I don’t believe there is a need to increase the military presence or the number of border guards. There are enough forces and assets in place, especially since Russian border guards are very professional and very efficient, which eases tensions in the communities with predominantly Georgian population.
As for Georgia, it is not yet ready and it does not seek to ease tensions. In any case, time will pass and we will discuss it together. There is a territory marked as the territory of the South Ossetian Autonomous Region and we will develop it. For now the border will pass through the territory of the South Ossetian Autonomous Region considering that Georgia has not yet given its consent.
But we have very serious territorial issues that must be raised. They are the Truso Gorge, which today is part of the Georgian administrative unit of Mtskheta-Mtianeti. This is historically Ossetian land which was put under the administration of the Georgian SSR in the Soviet times for some obscure reason. Today we should raise the issue of restoring these lands to Ossetia. In principle it is the territory of North Ossetia, but considering that we fully control the Leningorsk District we will raise these issues because these are our lands. For some strange reason in the Soviet times the territory of North Ossetia kept shrinking while the territory of the Georgian SSR kept expanding. This unique place, where many outstanding Ossetians were born, is for some reason claimed by Georgia.
Q: How do you assess the security situation a year after the war? Do you think a repeat of the August events is possible?
A: Georgia, assisted by the United States, NATO, Ukraine, Israel and other states, has quickly restored its military potential. The Georgian army is better equipped today than it was in August 2008. It regularly holds exercises jointly with NATO; and NATO and the U.S. regularly send their military experts there. But we have not been sitting on our hands either. Mindful of the events of August 2008, we are also taking the relevant measures. This does not mean that we are arming ourselves; we have simply drawn conclusions from what happened in 2008. In light of the agreements we have signed with the Russian Federation, I would like to reassure my fellow countrymen that the situation will remain stable and I rule out a new Georgian aggression now. One may supply weapons, but on the other hand we know the morale of the people who fled South Ossetia. As for that lover of wars and bellicose slogans, that international criminal, I would advise him to be careful. Considering his behavior, Georgia has a shortage of mental hospitals.
Q: How do you see the future of South Ossetia, which will have to live side by side with Georgia? Is dialogue with the Georgian leadership possible?
A: We are building an independent sovereign state. We have every reason to believe that we will succeed. The assistance Russia is rendering us is the page of history that the people of Ossetia will always remember, we will always be grateful to Russia wherever the Ossetians may live, in South Ossetia, North Ossetia or any other part of the world. We are all grateful to Russia and the Russian people for their support.
Our small nation was under siege and was being exterminated not for five days in August 2008 and not since 1989, but from the beginning of the 20th century.
We are not a vindictive people. In any case we are going to seek good, friendly relations with the neighboring state, but not with the present criminal regime, which we will put on trial.
Q: If Saakashvili were to come to South Ossetia, what can he expect?
A: In principle I rule out his coming to South Ossetia. I think a rabbit can never visit a leopard; otherwise the outcome will be lamentable for the rabbit. If he finds himself there he will become easy prey for the leopard who is awaiting him.