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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Tbilisi Trying Out Charm Offensive

ReutersDmitry Sanakoyev
TAMARASHENI, Georgia -- Georgian engineer Josef Kalmakhelidze says it is not easy building a traveling carnival in a battle zone.

"We could not get any work done for two or three days because they were shooting at us," he said, breaking off from installing a brightly painted Ferris wheel and looking up at a sandbag-covered dugout on the hillside above him.

Fifteen years after it lost control over its South Ossetia province in a separatist war, Georgia is pushing hard to get it back, and the carnival -- along with a hotel, fitness center and swimming pool also under construction -- is one of the weapons in its charm offensive.

Thousands were killed in 1990s fighting over this sliver of land, 100 kilometers north of the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. A cease-fire is in force, but there are almost weekly gun battles between separatists and Georgian forces.

The conflict is an open sore in relations between Georgia's Western-backed government and neighboring Russia: Moscow has peacekeeping troops in South Ossetia, and Tbilisi accuses Russia of siding with the separatists.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has a twin-pronged approach. In a direct challenge to the separatists, he has set up a rival South Ossetian government, led by Dmitry Sanakoyev, a former separatist prime minister who switched sides.

Saakashvili is funneling large sums of cash into a cluster of villages inside South Ossetia that remain under Georgian control. "There is a battle for hearts and minds going on," Saakashvili told his ministers last month.

Much of the new construction is in the village of Tamarasheni, a short walk from the separatists' capital, Tskhinvali. A cinema, so new its seats are still wrapped in plastic, stands gleaming on the village's only street.

The contrast is striking. In Tskhinvali, the buildings are old and decaying and the main entertainment venue, the theater, has no roof after an accidental fire.

But some observers say Saakashvili's strategy could trigger a new war. In June, the two sides exchanged artillery fire for three days in the biggest flare-up for months, and crowds of Georgian villagers confronted Russian peacekeepers.

"The Georgian government's steps are nonviolent ... but they are contributing to a perceptible and dangerous rise in tensions," an International Crisis Group report said. "Frequent security incidents could degenerate into greater violence."

Violence, or the threat of it, is never far away in South Ossetia.

In the lobby of Tamarasheni's new cinema stand cardboard cutouts of Hollywood stars Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts. Next to them, a man in camouflage gear sleeps on a metal cot. His automatic rifle is tucked under his pillow.

When Sanakoyev tours his tiny domain, he is accompanied by four beefy bodyguards in bulletproof vests. He says he has received threats from his former separatist comrades.

"The international community and Russia are not ready to accept South Ossetia as a sovereign state. And without recognition, our people are dying," Sanakoyev, 38, said in an interview in his temporary headquarters, a converted hospital wing.

"The only way we can [develop] is if we live as part of Georgia and have the attributes of a state," he said. "Georgia today is prepared to allow us to do that."