South Ossetia's main road is dotted with checkpoints and overlooked by a large poster of Russian President Vladimir Putin that reads "our president" less than a mile from a Georgian flag flapping over a Tbilisi-controlled enclave.
"It's a chess game," says Ada Tsaritova, a young South Ossetian woman, pointing down the street. "What can we do?... If we join with Georgia it means the end of Ossetia."
The breakaway republic is caught in a heated tug of war between Georgia and Russia. At issue is South Ossetia's renewed push for autonomy with Russia's help. But Georgians say it amounts to a land grab by Russia as it reasserts its power in the region.
The debate over South Ossetia's status has erupted in recent weeks following the first signs of renewed conflict between Georgia and Russia. One high-level Ossetian leader was assassinated and another was targeted in a series of attacks both the Georgians and Russians blamed one another.
A day after Georgian State Minister for Conflict Resolution Giorgi Khaindrava – the only member of Georgian leadership whom the Ossetian government says it trusted – was fired, Georgia's parliament issued a resolution calling for the removal of 1,000 Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia.
The move enraged Moscow, which issued a statement calling the resolution "a provocative step aimed at fomenting tensions."
Though South Ossetia began pushing for autonomy over a decade ago, it has been brought to the world's attention as a result of UN-led negotiations over the status of Kosovo, the southern Serbian province controlled by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization whose ongoing bid for independence is strongly backed by the West.
"This is a method and a way to pressure Georgia," explains Mr. Khaindrava in an interview, only days before being sacked in a July 21 Georgian cabinet reshuffle.
Georgians worry that Russia's support for South Ossetian independence is part of a broader strategy by Russia to spread its influence among former Soviet states by supporting separatist movements within those countries.
"Throughout the wars in the Balkans, Europe and the US have determined who gets autonomy based on what criteria," says International Crisis Group Caucasus Director Sabine Freizer. "Now Russia is trying to turn the tables in its own backyard."
The Ossetians say that Georgia's 143 percent increase in military spending this year, the ongoing construction of an $18 million base , and a series of large scale military exercises, are proof of an imminent military attack.
"We all know why the west is arming Georgia. Georgia is not going to declare war with Russia or Turkey; all these armaments are meant to solve the problem of South Ossetia and Abkhazia," says South Ossetian Deputy Prime Minister Boris Chochiev, referring to another breakaway Georgian region.
But Georgians say a military attack would only jeopardize Georgia's relationship with the United States, the European Council, and NATO, all of which oppose Georgia using force to rein in South Ossetia.
But unlike Kosovo, the international community has not backed South Ossetians' calls for autonomy, and has criticized Russia's support as an attempt to thwart Georgia's economic growth and integration with the West. Ossetians are disappointed with what they perceive as the West picking and choosing who gets the right to self-determination and applying international law unevenly.
"Kosovo – that is a beautiful precedent which the so-called Western (democracies) pushed. Now that Ossetia and Abkhazia are on the map again, no one wants to talk about Kosovo anymore," says Mr. Chochiev. To Georgia and the international community, territorial integrity is the key to stabilizing the region and preventing other breakaway zones from becoming autonomous.
Despite the tensions, Georgians and Ossetians live and work together and say their problems are political – not ethnic – and rooted in history. Ossetians clashed with the Georgians in the early 1920s and again in 1989, when Georgia refused to grant them independence.
A 1992 ceasefire remained in place until the summer of 2004, when Georgia took control of a Georgian-Ossetian trading post in a bid to clamp down on smuggling, angering South Ossetians who draw much of their income from the market.
"Everything that was achieved during the political negotiations from 1992 to 2004 was brought to zero," says South Ossetia's Minister of Foreign Affairs Murat Dzhioev.
Many South Ossetians see the region as part of Russia and, indeed, would likely join with the Russian region North Ossetia and have to rely heavily on Russian support if it broke from Georgia. South Ossetians already carry Russian passports, Russian leaders have been "recommended" for Ossetian posts, and government workers' salaries draw on Russian coffers. The Ossetian leadership says that Russia remains their best bet for protection. "We understand that politics is mainly interests, but still Russia is a country which ensures some security for us against Georgia," says Irina Gagloeva, chairwoman of South Ossetian Committee on Information and Media.
To nudge the Ossetians into choosing reintegration, Georgia has developed repatriation legislation for displaced Ossetians and millions of dollars in economic assistance from international donors.