Accessibility links

South Ossetia Market Important for Local Economy - 2002-02-13


The breakaway region of South Ossetia has been cut off from Georgia since fighting flared in the early 1990's. The fighting has stopped, but South Ossetia has been going it alone, its independence recognized neither by Georgia nor any other country.

The muddy streets of the Ergneti market are clogged with trucks, Russian cars, three-wheeled motorcycles, and limping stray dogs. Under plastic tarps, would-be entrepreneurs from all over South Ossetia hawk sunflower seeds, pasta, soap, and much more. Customers fill up jerry cans of gasoline from one of the many tankers that line the road.

Though the market is near Tskhinvali and most of the vendors are from South Ossetia, it is located just outside the breakaway territory.

Business is good today as it usually is. Judging by the cars, most of the customers are from Georgia. Though approximately 1,000 people died during fighting in the early 1990's, there do not seem to be any lingering hostilities. Georgians and South Ossetians mingle easily at the market.

This is a huge change from a decade ago when relations between them were so tense that no one could ever have imagined they would one day be hunting for bargains instead of each other.

Adina Alexeevna is a teacher by morning and a trader at the Ergneti market in the afternoon. She is standing next to a neatly stacked display of canned fish and cooking oil. She says here politics is the least of people's concerns.

"There are no political questions here. The market has one language, economic. That is it," she says.

There is plenty of economic incentive for Georgians to drive here. The goods are half the price of those in the Georgian capital Tbilisi, a two-hour drive away. The Georgian government will not build a customs post because it would be seen as a tacit acknowledgement of South Ossetia's independence.

In Soviet times, the region of 80,000 people was part of Georgia. But during the fall of the Soviet Union, South Ossetians declared independence, partly out of fear of Georgian nationalism. They also wanted to join their Ossetian neighbors on the other side of the Caucasus and become part of Russia.

Now, South Ossetia is pretty much alone, recognized by no country. Georgian, Ossetian, and Russian troops patrol the border dividing Georgia from its breakaway republic and they manage, most of the time, to keep the peace.

The dismal economic situation in South Ossetia and Georgia has driven both sides to cooperate economically at the market, but the cooperation does not extend much beyond it.

Irakli Machavariani represents Georgia in its talks with South Ossetian officials about the future of the region. He has said Tbilisi has only one stipulation.

"We are open for negotiations. But the only condition, which we have, is that the status must be defined within one state, within the territorial integrity of Georgia. Everything else is negotiable," he says.

But that is the one thing that the South Ossetian government says it will not negotiate.

They would still like to join with North Ossetia, possibly as part of Russia, possibly as an independent country, although neither option seems at all likely right now.

From his office, South Ossetia Prime Minister Rezo Hugaev can see the Caucasus mountains that divide South and North Ossetia. Mr. Hugaev said South Ossetia should have the same right to self-determination as Georgia.

"International law gives more opportunities to realize their natural rights for life to a Georgian or a Russian, but not to an Ossetian or Chechen or any other representative of a minor nation. So it is a double or even a triple standard," Mr. Hugaev says.

The one thing both sides do agree on is the importance of the Ergneti market in bringing people together and putting food on the table for many families.

But the lack of government control also makes the market ripe for smuggling of drugs and weapons. Recently, there has been talk of shutting it down.

Ms. Alexeevna has says this would be a disaster for everyone.

"If the market closed, it would be very bad for both the Georgian side and the Ossetian side because it is the only source of life for both sides. Everyone knows that the factories do not work. And this market in Ergneti feeds a lot of people," Ms. Alexeevna says.

The working day draws to a close at the market and people begin to pack up and go home. Regardless of how the political discussions between South Ossetia and Georgia progress, tomorrow Adina Alexeevna will be here selling canned fish. She does not care who the customers are or where they are from, as long as they keep buying.

XS
SM
MD
LG