Troops gather on Georgian border

Less than a year after the enclave of South Ossetia erupted in war, this tinder box of the Caucasus is primed to flare up again, writes Shaun Walker

It's easy to see how things could spiral out of control: the two sides are braced for combat. At Ergneti on Georgia's border with South Ossetia, Georgian military police stand guard behind high barricades made of sandbags and two metre-high slabs of concrete. Out of sight barely 20 metres away, the forces of South Ossetia and Russia are mustered behind barricades of their own, their national flags fluttering.

The tranquility of the rolling green fields and lush vineyards belie it, but many fear that another summer war between Russia and Georgia like the one 11 months ago which killed hundreds of civilians is no more than a stutter of automatic gunfire away from breaking out. And if it happens, this standoff at Ergneti could be the flashpoint.

In the valley below is Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian capital. Today it shimmers in the heat but last August it was the epicentre of the war as the forces of the Russian Federation punished the Georgian army for asserting its right to rule the ethnically distinct entity of South Ossetia on its northern edge.

The tension is palpable. And the fear today is that this time, the Russian forces may carry out what last year they only threatened and topple the regime of the Western-leaning Georgian President, Mikheil Saakashvili.

Russian troops this week embarked on large-scale war games in the North Caucasus, just a few dozen miles away, preparation for "potential conflict situations in the region," the generals say. Similar exercises preceded the war last summer.

The mood at the Ergneti checkpoint is tense and the Georgian soldiers say there is absolutely no human contact between the two sides, despite the proximity. With the exception of a mangy stray dog, which wanders freely between the two posts, nobody is allowed to cross the border.

Locals need no reminding of how deadly a new war would be. In Ergneti itself, which before the war was home to about 200 people, only a few villagers have returned. Many houses here, and in other villages on the way to the Georgian city of Gori 20 miles away, suffered heavy damage from Russian aerial bombardment last August. The houses that remained standing were ruthlessly looted and torched by marauding Ossetian militias.

"I lost absolutely everything," says Gia Cheladze, 42, who has lived his whole life in Ergneti. With his family he escaped to Gori during the war. When he returned, he found his two-story house was a charred wreck. The windows and roof had been destroyed and everything of value looted. "I've worked hard all my life and in a couple of weeks it was all destroyed," he says.

He now lives with his elderly parents in a shack, beside the shell of his old house, a constant reminder of the threat of war. The money he received from the Georgian government was not enough to rebuild the house, and he claims that European aid distributed in the region was appropriated by a few families and then put up for sale.

Now, says Mr Cheladze, the villagers fear that their lives will be disrupted by war once again. "Everyone here is tense," he says. "This morning there was a huge explosion, I don't know where it came from. People say that 6 July is the day that something might happen. Maybe we'll leave for a few days around then; I can't bear yet another war."

Some Russian analysts dismiss the theory that Russia is looking for a new war and suggest that the Caucasus war games were a response to Nato military exercises which took place in Georgia recently and infuriated Moscow. There are some, however, such as Andrei Illarionov, a former adviser to Vladimir Putin, who say that Russia is looking to oust Mr Saakashvili permanently and may launch an invasion of the country on 6 July, the date that President Barack Obama makes his much-hyped first official visit to Moscow.

Mr Putin, now the Russian Prime Minister and still widely seen as the most powerful person in Russia, has a deep personal hatred of Mr Saakashvili and has expressed a desire to see him "hung by the balls".

"For Moscow it's quite galling to see that Saakashvili is still in power nearly a year after losing the war," says Lawrence Sheets, from the International Crisis Group in Tbilisi. "The statements coming out of Moscow with increasing regularity look very ominous."

Mr Sheets says the Georgian tactics in the event of an invasion by the Russian army are likely to revolve around guerrilla warfare and a defence of the capital, Tbilisi.

In a worrying sign, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which has had a mission in South Ossetia for more than a decade and had been monitoring the border region since last summer's war, was forced to close its mission in Georgia this week. Russia had insisted that for the mission to continue, it must recognise South Ossetia's independence. Apart from Russia, only Nicaragua has recognised South Ossetia and Abkhazia – Georgia's other breakaway zone – as independent countries, with the rest of the world still insistent that they are separatist territories that are officially part of Georgia.

Unwilling to change the mission's status, the OSCE has had to shut down shop and its Finnish head of mission left the country for good on Tuesday morning. For the same reason, a UN mission in Abkhazia is closing down.

The departure of the OSCE is "hugely important symbolically and psychologically," says Mr Sheets. Georgian officials fear that without international observers in place, it will be easy for the Russians to launch an attack in response to supposed Georgian provocations. Russia has stationed thousands of troops in South Ossetia since last summer.

With the situation volatile, even if Russia is not actively seeking a new war, a minor spat or a stray bullet could lead to disastrous consequences in the region.

"I don't think people in Europe and the US really understand just how dangerous this situation is," says Mr Sheets. "It's very scary and very explosive."

In an interview with The Independent yesterday, Mr Saakashvili expressed his concern about the situation. "Of course I'm worried," he said. "The idea of invasion looks crazy if you apply normal political logic... but [the Russians] operate with the logic of a street bully."

News
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
Sport
Danny Welbeck's Manchester United future is in doubt
footballGunners confirm signing from Manchester United
Sport
footballStriker has moved on loan for the remainder of the season
Sport
footballFeaturing Bart Simpson
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman topped the list of the 30 most influential females in broadcasting
tv
News
Kelly Brook
peopleA spokesperson said the support group was 'extremely disappointed'
News
The five geckos were launched into space to find out about the effects of weightlessness on the creatures’ sex lives
i100
Life and Style
techIf those brochure kitchens look a little too perfect to be true, well, that’s probably because they are
Sport
Andy Murray celebrates a shot while playing Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
TennisWin sets up blockbuster US Open quarter-final against Djokovic
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
booksRiddling trilogy could net you $3m
Arts and Entertainment
Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand performs live
music Pro-independence show to take place four days before vote
News
news Video - hailed as 'most original' since Benedict Cumberbatch's
News
i100
Life and Style
The longer David Sedaris had his Fitbit, the further afield his walks took him through the West Sussex countryside
lifeDavid Sedaris: What I learnt from my fitness tracker about the world
Arts and Entertainment
Word master: Self holds up a copy of his novel ‘Umbrella’
booksUnlike 'talented mediocrity' George Orwell, you must approach this writer dictionary in hand
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Implementation Consultant (VB,C#, SQL, Java, Eclipse, integ

£40000 - £50000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: SQL Impl...

SQL Technical Implementation Consultant (Java, BA, Oracle, VBA)

£45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: SQL Technical ...

Head of IT (Windows, Server, VMware, SAN, Fidessa, Equities)

£85000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Head of IT (Windows, Server, VMware, SAN, ...

Lead C# Developer (.Net, nHibernate, MVC, SQL) Surrey

£55000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Lead C# Develo...

Day In a Page

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

James Frey's literary treasure hunt

Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering