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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

South Ossetia Turns One With Photo Exhibit

ReutersA priest attending the opening of a South Ossetian photo exhibition Friday.

On the eve of the first anniversary of South Ossetia’s controversial independence, its leader Eduard Kokoity took a stroll on Moscow’s Gogolevsky Bulvar on Friday to open a street exhibition of photos showing life in his tiny republic.

Speaking with reporters after basking in toasts from prominent lawmakers and city and church officials, Kokoity accused Georgia of warmongering and mused over joining a union state with Russia and Belarus.

He offered lemonade and Ossetian pirogi, a sort of Caucasus pizza that is his homeland’s national dish, as he praised Russia as the region’s “engine of peace” and warned that Georgia still posed a military threat.

“Today, Georgia is rearming and its military potential is already far stronger than before August 2008,” he said.

Georgian Reintegration Minister Temur Iakobashvili called the accusations baseless. “Georgia is a sovereign state and has a right to keep an army,” he told the Moscow Times by telephone from Tbilisi.

Iakobashvili added that the Georgian army was not offensive-minded. “Our first aim is to make the country defendable and to participate in international peacekeeping operations like in Afghanistan,” he said.

Russia recognized the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Georgia’s other breakaway republic, after it repelled a Georgian attack on the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, in a five-day war last August. The decision, lambasted by the West, has been followed by no sovereign state except Nicaragua.

Kokoity shook hands with Nicaragua’s envoy to Russia, Luis Molina Cuadra, before brushing off questions about whether he felt isolated because of the lack of widespread recognition of his territory.

“It is our people’s will to be independent,” he said, adding that “a range of countries” were now considering recognizing his territory.

The only one that he named was Belarus, saying it was an attractive option for South Ossetia to join the Russia-Belarus Union. “We would take this on with great pleasure and strive toward this,” he said.

Belarus, once Russia’s closest ally, has so far resisted pressure from the Kremlin to recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko has instead embarked on a rapprochement course with the European Union.

The union state with Moscow has existed since 1997 but has been criticized as largely dysfunctional.

Kokoity has said in the past that he wants to unite with Russia, in whose constituent republic of North Ossetia most ethnic Ossetians live, but that Moscow was not yet ready for that because such a move would draw accusations of annexing territory.

This line of argument was echoed by Konstantin Kosachyov, the chairman of the State Duma’s International Affairs Committee, who said Friday that South Ossetia’s long-term future was up in the air.

“I do not exclude anything — neither everlasting independence, nor unification with Russia and not even reunification with Georgia,” Kosachyov told The Moscow Times on the sidelines of the exhibit’s opening.

Yet he cautioned that unification was — at least for now — unrealistic and unwanted. “This would be interpreted as annexation, and that is something Russia does not want,” he said.

Georgia has accused Russia of essentially annexing South Ossetia and Abkhazia already. Both regions have Russian troops stationed on their territories, and Russian border guards man their frontiers with Georgia.

Both Kokoity and his Abkhaz counterpart, Sergei Bagapsh, have said they do not want their republics to ever return to Georgia. Supporting that, President Dmitry Medvedev said recently that the map of the Caucasus had been redrawn for good and that Moscow would not review its recognition of the two territories’ independence.

But Kosachyov said the Russian government might well have not taken this step if Georgia’s allies had shown more understanding for Moscow’s position in the aftermath of the war.

“The U.S. and Europe sadly reacted by clinging to the deeply erroneous view that Georgia did not attack South Ossetia but that Russia attacked Georgia,” he said.

He stressed that Medvedev’s decision was made in the run-up to Aug. 26, when the president signed the decree to recognize the territories’ independence, almost two weeks after the war had ended.

Kosachyov also said broader international recognition for the two territories remained high on Moscow’s foreign policy agenda, despite recent comments by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin that suggested the opposite.

Putin said during his first official visit to the Abkhaz capital, Sukhumi, earlier this month that Abkhazia did not need recognition from any country other than Russia.

Kosachyov, who is also a senior official of Putin’s United Russia party, said these remarks reflected the current situation, which he hoped would change eventually. “I think time will show others that we were right, and then more countries will follow,” he said.

Pictures from the South Ossetian exhibit, which also can be found at Liveosetia.ru, will be on display until next Friday, Aug. 28.