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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Two Referendums on the Way to Nowhere

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As South Ossetians voted Sunday for independence from Georgia in a referendum no country in the world was likely to recognize, the sheer absurdity of the situation in the tiny breakaway republic was brought home again on a short drive from the capital, Tskhinvali, to the scruffy village of Eredvi.

At a briefing in Tskhinvali, South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoity, a dapper man with a bit of the street fighter about him, told us South Ossetia had the same right to independence as Montenegro or Kosovo -- despite the fact that it has a population of only 70,000 (some say it's far smaller) and a flatlining economy.

From there we took a taxi to the de facto border -- a few concrete barriers and sheds -- where we had to negotiate our way past armed soldiers, both South Ossetian and Russian, and switch to another, almost identical, Lada taxi, before doubling back to reach the Georgian army checkpoint. After the soldiers called their commanders, we were allowed to trundle on down into Eredvi, where the alternative election campaign -- which South Ossetians called a provocation by the Georgian government to spoil their democratic moment -- had its headquarters.

Once there, a chubby giant in camouflage gave us cookies and Borjomi mineral water and told us sweetly that South Ossetia had never existed as a country and that the referendum was a show staged by the Russians to pressure the Georgians into bowing before the Kremlin.

Two opposing referendums, two sets of people with opposing ideas about what this patch of territory should become; two military checkpoints, three sets of armed forces and thousands of angry people -- some of them carrying Kalashnikovs -- all a six-kilometer drive from each other. This is the militarized normality in which South Ossetians live. Even the greatest minds in international conflict resolution would have trouble coming up with a peaceful solution here that might be accepted by any, let alone all of those involved.

The South Ossetian referendum was, possibly, even more surreal: a referendum on independence that was certain to pass and just as certain not to change anything. More than that, the South Ossetians themselves didn't even want what they were voting for -- independence -- but to become part of another country: Russia. Even Russia had suggested that this wasn't likely to happen.

So they go through the motions, maintaining their illusions amid the soldiers and checkpoints, subsisting in isolation and economic deprivation. And as the world's gaze moves on and we start to forget what we saw, they will remain here. And they will keep on waiting.

Matthew Collin is a journalist in Tbilisi.