Selling Lofty Dreams in Separatist South Ossetia

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At the launch of Dmitry Sanakoyev's autobiography, his beefy minders were taking no chances, despite the genteel surroundings. Sanakoyev, a leading figure in the separatist regime in South Ossetia who sensationally defected to the Georgian side, was surrounded at all times by a bull-necked cordon of solid Caucasian muscle. The reason for the heavy security became only too clear a few days later, when a roadside bomb reportedly exploded as his convoy passed by in what he says was an assassination attempt.

Sanakoyev is the head of the Georgian-backed administration in South Ossetia, which was set up a year ago to undermine the Russian-backed separatists' claims to be the region's legitimate bosses. But he actually fought against Georgia during the war in the early 1990s, which left most of the minuscule territory under separatist control. One of the photographs in his autobiography shows him in camouflage fatigues, toting an automatic rifle. It's juxtaposed with pictures of burning buildings.

I once asked him if he had killed any Georgians while he was fighting for the separatist cause. His response was suitably diplomatic: "I fired, but thank God I did not kill anyone."

Although he once served as the separatist prime minister and describes himself in his book as an "Ossetian patriot," there weren't many warm words for Sanakoyev when I last visited the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali. "Sanakoyev will not live for long," one elderly man snarled when I mentioned him. "He will provoke that himself, and we will support it." Then again, one doesn't tend to hear many dissenting voices in the kind of town where the security forces are the main employer.

South Ossetian officials have labeled him a "traitor" and a "Georgian puppet." They claim that he only defected because the Georgians paid off his gambling debts, although no concrete evidence has been produced to support the allegation. Both the separatists and their friends at the Russian Foreign Ministry also claim that Thursday's roadside bomb attack was staged.

Sanakoyev says he realized that South Ossetia could only find peace and prosperity if it remained part of Georgia. In his autobiography, he argues that the separatists have been selling people unrealistic dreams of gaining independence and someday joining the Russian Federation -- "lying to their nation and manipulating people's fate," as he puts it.

Since he crossed over to the Georgian side, the authorities have spent millions of dollars on the "Sanakoyev project," in the hope of convincing Ossetians that life would be rosier under government control. They're still waiting to see if their investment will pay off.

Matthew Collin is a journalist in Tbilisi.