If Russia's leaving, S. Ossetia town asks: Why build a new road?

The residents of Akhalgori, a town located just 25 miles from Georgia's capital, say Russian troops are creating a new military supply route.

Georgy Abdaldaze/AP
REFUGEE: Zina Zakharishvili speaks to an EU monitor. She fled the town of Akhalgori.

On Sunday, Russian troops began to vacate checkpoints in Georgia set up after the brief war in August. Russia faces a deadline of Friday to pull all of its troops from Georgia under cease-fire terms agreed upon with the European Union.

Russian soldiers are also supposed to leave Akhalgori, a small town strategically located just 25 miles northwest of Georgia's capital.

If that's the case, why are Russians now upgrading a dirt road connecting Akhalgori with South Ossetia's capital, Tskhinvali? ask town residents. They say it's part of a Russian plan to stay – or at least to be in a position to return rapidly.

"There's no real road there yet, but they're building it," says an elderly woman who would only give her first name, Yevgenia. She and nearly a dozen other residents interviewed separately confirmed that Russian troops are working on the road now. The residents have been told by Russian soldiers that the goal is to make it usable for military equipment.

Akhalgori is in a valley on South Ossetia's periphery, cut off by thickly wooded ridges from the rest of the de facto independent state. The valley had been under Georgian control since fighting began in the early 1992, but Russian troops and South Ossetian separatists seized the valley on August 17.

To resupply and rotate troops in the valley, the Russian military has had to either drive through Georgian-controlled territory or use helicopters. The improved road, which runs out of Akhalgori to the northwest, would provide a secure supply route.

In recent weeks, Russian and South Ossetian soldiers have started to use the dirt road, which requires four wheel-drive vehicles and is impassable in winter.

Russia is building the road because it and South Ossetia's separatist government aren't going to withdraw, says Alexander Rondeli, president of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies.

Losing the Akhalgori region would be catastrophic for Georgia, because the capital, Tbilisi, is so close, he says. "They can come from Akhalgori with tanks on the highway into Tbilisi in half an hour," Mr. Rondeli says.

If Russia plans to leave by the Oct. 10 deadline, there is no reason to start the road work, which is likely to take several months to complete, says an official in Georgia's Interior Ministry, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to publicly discuss this issue.

Moscow plans to stay to back up South Ossetia's claim of independence, which only Russia and Nicaragua have recognized, he says.

"If Russia controls all of South Ossetia it will be easier to call for its independence. The region [of Akhalgori] is otherwise fully connected with the rest of Georgia," he notes.

"It's a very small district, which probably nobody had heard of before, that is now part of a big game," the official says.

The EU is confident Russia will honor the cease-fire agreement and withdraw, says Juri Laas, the interim spokesman for the EU monitoring mission in Georgia.

The EU has heard reports of road work but has not been able to independently confirm them and does not think it means Russia might stay in Akhalgori, he says. "That is a bit of speculation because there's nothing wrong with improving a road."

Some 200 EU civilian monitors began patrols this past Wednesday inside the roughly four-mile-wide buffer zone around Georgia's two breakaway provinces, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The unarmed monitors have not been allowed by Russian and South Ossetian forces into Akhalgori, which lies a few miles beyond the buffer zone.

The monitors' mission is to report any violations of the cease-fire agreement. They have no executive authority to enforce the agreement.

On Sunday, EU monitors reported that Russian troops also pulled out of a base in Nadarbazevi, northwest of Georgia's capital. It wasn't clear how many Russian checkpoints or bases were to be dismantled in accordance with the cease-fire deal. At one point, Russia said it would set up 18 in each of the two breakaway provinces. But Russia has also made it clear that it plans to keep nearly 8,000 troops in Abkhazia and South Ossetia to protect those citizens from Georgia.

Many of Akhalgori's residents fled during the fighting in August. The town's remaining Georgian residents say they are exhausted after nearly two months of intimidation, beatings, and lootings by Russian and South Ossetian troops.

"All the young people have left" because they were beating them, says Yevgenia, a short woman with a weathered face.

The soldiers "get drunk and aim their weapons at people and shoot in the air. They beat people" for no reason, says a middle-aged man who would only give his first name, Shota.

Like the rest of Akhalgori's ethnic Georgians, he fears reprisal from the Russians and South Ossetians stationed here.

"We can't go on like this. We're psychologically sick," Yevgenia says. She begins to cry and covers her face with her trembling hands.

"We're in prison here," she says.

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