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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Relatively Peaceful Days With Shooting at Night

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The Georgian soldiers on the de facto border of the South Ossetian conflict zone seemed concerned for my welfare. "Don't go in," they advised, "it's dangerous there." Inside separatist territory, spring blooms brightened up the Soviet drabness of the capital, Tskhinvali, but the mood was edgy and paranoid. The siege mentality seemed to have hardened in the six months since I last visited.

A couple of days beforehand, roads had been blocked when the separatists set up checkpoints, and there were reports of nocturnal shootouts, which each side blamed on the other, as usual. The beefy separatist president, Eduard Kokoity, claimed Georgia was pushing South Ossetia into war.

The cause of the rise in tensions over the past month is the rival local administration set up by the Georgian government in the part of South Ossetia it controls to undermine the separatists. It claims to represent the entire region and is headed by a former separatist prime minister who defected to the other side. He now says South Ossetia can only have a peaceful, prosperous future if it remains part of Georgia. For the separatists, this is heresy: They see their destiny within Russia.

Part of their problem is that although many young Ossetians think the same way, they want their future now, and they're leaving for Vladikavkaz because job opportunities in South Ossetia are limited if you don't fancy risking your life serving with the security forces. An Ossetian friend suggested that the conflict could resolve itself demographically within a generation because there wouldn't be enough people left in the separatist zone to carry on the dispute. I'm not sure he was joking.

In Tskhinvali's central market, I heard a similar story; traders spoke of their children who had emigrated to find wealth and happiness. "What kind of life is this?" one demanded. "We say tomorrow will be better, but in the night the shooting starts again. We are waiting to join Russia and then life will be better."

Despite the conflict, there were still Georgian women selling their wares at the market. "We like them," said an Ossetian fruit seller, "but sometimes when there's shooting we ask them why they come here."

The new, pro-Georgian administration, with its headquarters almost within shelling range of Tskhinvali, blames the recent violence on what it describes as a desperate and doomed separatist regime, lashing out in panic. But the market vendors, like the separatist president, insisted that Georgians were the aggressors. "Of course we are afraid," said one, "but we stand our ground."

I left before nightfall, and then the shooting started again.

Matthew Collin is a Tbilisi-based journalist.