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After war, Russia's influence expands

The war with Georgia has many calling for North and South Ossetia to unite.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / October 3, 2008

Rich Clabaugh–STAFF


Vladikavkaz, Russia

Boris Samoyev, a driver from war-torn South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali, pulls his car over to allow a convoy of Russian military trucks to roll past. The trucks are heading south into the Roki Tunnel, which connects the republics of North and South Ossetia.

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"The Russians have helped us so much. They came when the Georgians were beating our door down, and drove them back," Mr. Samoyev says. "We Ossetians have always been loyal to Russia, and they have proven that we made the right choice."

Though Moscow threw relations with the West into crisis by striking with massive force when Georgia attempted to seize breakaway South Ossetia in August, the impact in Russia's turbulent, multiethnic northern Caucasus appears to be in the Kremlin's favor – at least for now.

Many experts in North Ossetia, the most important of the seven ethnic republics in this troubled region because of its historic and current loyalty to Moscow, say Russia would have risked disaffection if it hadn't acted to protect South Ossetia.

Some add that the Kremlin should now allow North and South Ossetia to unite, creating a pro-Moscow Ossetian republic that straddles the Caucasus Mountains, to enhance stability in the whole region.

"This war showed that Russia is strong and a force to be reckoned with. In one stroke, Moscow reassured its friends in the region and warned its enemies. This will have a calming effect throughout the Caucasus," says Nodar Taberti, a South Ossetian economist.

During the war, thousands of North Ossetians besieged military recruitment stations, demanding to be sent to the front lines, experts here say. "If the Russian Army hadn't marched, thousands of Ossetian men would have gone in on their own to fight the Georgians," says Khasan Dzutsev, director of the official Center for Social Research in Vladikavkaz. "Especially since [the terrorist school massacre in] Beslan, people here have wondered whether Moscow would protect them. This was the moment of truth."

But critics argue that Moscow has set a baneful precedent by recognizing the independence of South Ossetia, and another breakaway Georgian region, Abkhazia, and may pay a heavy price for it down the road.

"All the arguments that [President Dmitry] Medvedev used to justify Russia's recognition of South Ossetia can apply in equal measure to Chechnya, or other republics of the north Caucasus," says Nikolai Petrov, an expert with the Carnegie Center in Moscow. "Since Moscow has granted special status to two Caucasian republics – South Ossetia and Abkhazia – it's only a matter of time before others start demanding the same treatment."